Background Articles on WAR GOD: NIGHTS OF THE WITCH
"Five hundred years ago the old Mexican prophecy which announced the return of Quetzalcoatl came true. In an era dominated by human sacrifices and the decadence of a great culture, bearded men, white-faced, from beyond the sea, arrived to impose their law. In this fast-moving highly recommended novel, Graham Hancock masterfully reconstructs the biggest clash of civilizations ever, revealing aspects that only a genius author could unveil."
-Javier Sierra, New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Supper and The Lost Angel
I’d like to share some advance information on my new novel War God (publication date 30 May 2013) which tells the epic story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico – a true adventure so extraordinary, and at times so unbelievable, you literally “couldn’t make it up”.
This is the first of what will be a series of short articles on the book that I’ll write here over the coming months as we move towards publication.
The Spanish conquest of Mexico, a turning point in human history comparable to the feats of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan, took place nearly 500 years ago, between February 1519, when Hernan Cortes and his small fleet first made landfall on the coast of the Yucatan, and August 1521 which saw the final apocalyptic siege and destruction of the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan – the site of modern Mexico City.
The people who history so often wrongly refers to as the Aztecs called themselves the Mexica and that is how I refer to them in War God. Under their Emperor Moctezuma they could put 200,000 ferocious, battle-hardened warriors in the field. Confronting this gigantic army, which sought to honor the war god Huitzilopochtli – “Hummingbird” – by taking enemies prisoner, bringing them to the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan and cutting out their hearts in gruesome spectacles of blood and terror, Cortes commanded just 490 Spanish irregular troops. Their numbers were swelled by some 100 sailors bringing the total invading force to about 600 after Cortes had scuttled his own fleet in a spectacular act of audacity and defiance, telling his men “we must conquer this land or die”.
Academics often argue about whether personalities make much difference in great events, or whether broader social, economic and political forces are the real engines of history, but one of the many things I have found so intriguing about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and one of the reasons I decided to write War God as a novel rather than as a work of non-fiction, is that personalities clearly mattered very much indeed.
If, for example, Moctezuma had been a different sort of ruler, if he had possessed a shred of kindness or decency, if there had been any capacity in him to love, then he surely would not have preyed upon neighboring peoples for human sacrifices to offer up to his war god, in which case he could have earned their devotion and respect rather than their universal loathing, and thus might have been in a position to lead a united opposition to the Spanish adventurers and to crush them utterly within weeks of setting foot in his lands. But he was none of these things and thus Cortes was almost immediately able to exploit the hatred that Moctezuma’s behavior had provoked and find allies amongst those the Mexica had terrorized and exploited – allies who were crucial to the success of the conquest. Of particular note in this respect were the mountain people called the Tlascalans who had suffered the depredations of the Mexica more profoundly than any others and who were led by Shikotenka, a general so brave and so principled that he at first fought the Spanish tooth and nail – seeing the existential danger they posed to the entire culture of the region – despite the liberation from Moctezuma’s tyranny that Cortes offered him. Only when Cortes had utterly crushed Shikotenka in battle did he finally give in to the demands of the Tlascalan Senate to make an alliance with the Spaniards, an alliance that soon put tens of thousands of auxiliaries under Cortes’ command.
Another personality who also played a vital role, arguably a decisive role, was the mysterious and reportedly very beautiful woman called Malinal who had a gift for languages and who was to become Cortes’ interpreter and ultimately his lover and the mother of his child. History does not tell us why Malinal bore Moctezuma such a deep personal grudge that she was willing to sell out her own people in order to see him defeated, but one of the joys of writing fiction rather than non-fiction is that it allows me to fill in such gaps. In my novel we first meet Malinal in the women’s fattening pen in Tenochtitlan being prepared for sacrifice – her heart to be cut out, her body to be butchered and eaten – by Moctezuma himself. Through daring, and with the aid of a fourteen-year-old witch named Tozi, another central character in my story, Malinal escapes this fate and flees to the coast of the Yucatan where she encounters Cortes and soon makes herself indispensable to him.
It is Malinal who tells Cortes about the white-skinned, bearded god Quetzalcoatl, “Feathered Serpent”, who an ancient prophecy said would return in the year One-Reed to overthrow a wicked king and restore peace and justice to the land. And as it happened 1519 in our calendar was the year One-Reed in the Mexica calendar. Whether this was pure chance or whether some inscrutable design might have been at work, Malinal taught Cortes how to exploit the myth of the god’s return. What followed was a ruthless and spectacularly successful campaign to dominate Moctezuma psychologically long before the Spaniards faced him in battle.
In future articles, I’ll have more to say about Quetzalcoatl and about the role of the supernatural in my story.
My first historical novel, War God: Nights of the Witch, tells the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It is a story of danger, romance, barbarism, and courage that begins on 18 February 1519 when 500 Spanish adventurers led by Hernan Cortes set sail from Cuba on a stormy night to pit themselves against the might of the Mexica (Aztec) empire. The empire is ruled with an iron hand by the feared Moctezuma who has 200,000 brutal and experienced warriors at his command.
My novel, which includes strong elements of the supernatural – it is not for nothing that Moctezuma’s Mexico has been described as “the last magical civilisation” by Nobel prize-winner J.M.G. Le Clezio – is told from the points of view of eleven central characters. In this article, the second of a series that I’ll post here over the coming months prior to the publication of War God on 30 May 2013, I give a brief description of these central characters.
HERNANDO (“HERNAN”) CORTES. Commander of the Spanish expedition to Mexico. Age, thirty-five. A brilliant military commander and political operator, he is clever, Machiavellian, manipulative, utterly ruthless, vengeful and daring, but with a paradoxical streak of messianic Christianity. He hates Diego de Velazquez, the Governor of Cuba, who he has conned into giving him command of the expedition and who he intends to betray. Some years earlier Velazquez imprisoned Cortes on trumped-up charges to oblige him to marry his niece Catalina. Cortes went through with the marriage to escape prison but has been plotting his revenge on Velazquez ever since.
MOCTEZUMA. Emperor – his official title is “Great Speaker” – of the Mexica. Age, fifty-three. The seat of his power is the city of Tenochtitlan, built of an island in the middle of a huge salt lake (Lake Texcoco) in the Valley of Mexico. The Valley of Mexico is ringed by distant snow-capped mountains. At the heart of the Valley is Lake Texcoco. At the heart of Lake Texcoco is the island on which Tenochtitlan stands, accessed via three huge causeways (varying in length between two and six miles) extending to the southern, western and northern shores of the lake. At the heart of Tenochtitlan surrounded by a vast walled enclosure – the grand plaza, or sacred precinct – is the Great Pyramid surmounted by the temple of Huitzilopochtli (“Hummingbird”), war god of the Mexica, to whom tens of thousands of human sacrifices are offered every year. When we meet MOCTEZUMA in the opening chapters of the novel he is performing human sacrifices on the summit platform of the Great Pyramid. The horrific scene take place in full view of the fattening pens at the edge of the grand plaza where thousands of victims are imprisoned awaiting sacrifice. Moctezuma frequently enters a trance state induced by the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in which he communicates directly with the war god – demon – “Hummingbird”. The demon, whose purpose is to maximise human misery and chaos on earth, urges Moctezuma on to ever more cruel and brutal mass sacrifices.
TOZI. A witch. Age, fourteen. We meet her amongst the victims being fattened for sacrifice in the women’s fattening pen at the edge of the grand plaza in Tenochtitlan. Tozi never knew her father. Her mother was a witch but was cornered and beaten to death by a mob when Tozi was seven, at which age Tozi’s own training had just begun and her powers were not fully developed. She survived as a beggar on the streets of Tenochtitlan for the next six years until captured and placed in the fattening pen at the age of fourteen to await sacrifice. Tozi has certain magical talents of which the most important is the ability to make herself invisible. However at this point of the story she lacks skill and experience and if she attempts to maintain invisibility for more than a few seconds she suffers catastrophic physical consequences. Tozi’s origins are mysterious. Her mother told her they came from Aztlan, the fabled homeland not only of the Mexica but also of the Tlascalans and other related “Nahua” peoples who speak the language called Nahuatl. But Aztlan is a mythical and legendary place, the home of the gods, where masters of wisdom and workers of magic are believed to dwell; although the Mexica say their forefathers came from Aztlan no-one knows where it is any more or how to find it.
MALINAL. A beautiful courtesan and sex-slave of the Mexica. Age, twenty-one. Malinal is Maya in ethnic origin and is fluent both in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica and in the Mayan language. We meet her in the fattening pen in Tenochtitlan where she, like Tozi, has been imprisoned awaiting sacrifice. How and why she is there becomes clear to the reader as the story develops. When we understand the roots of her intense hatred for Moctezuma and the Mexica we understand why, when she escapes the fattening pen, she travels to the Yucatan where Cortes has landed intending to use him as her instrument to destroy Moctezuma.
PEPILLO. Spanish, fourteen years of age. An orphan, he was given shelter, reared and taught numbers and letters by Dominican monks who brought him from Spain to the New World, first to the island of Hispaniola and then to Cuba where he worked as a junior bookkeeper and clerk in the Dominican monastery. When we meet him he has just been appointed page and assistant to the mysterious Father Gaspar Munoz the Dominican Inquisitor who will sail with Cortes’ expedition to Mexico.
FATHER GASPAR MUNOZ. Age, late thirties. Dominican friar and official Inquisitor on the expedition to Mexico. Munoz has a reputation for burning “heretics” to death on the slightest pretext. He is also a sadistic paedophile and serial killer and exploits his position as Inquisitor to indulge his perverse appetites.
SHIKOTENKA. Battle king of Tlascala, sworn enemy of the Mexica. Age, thirty-three. We meet him concealed on a mountainside in Tlascala (two days’ march away from Tenochtitlan) spying on a gigantic Mexica army gathering to attack his people. The army is there to capture thousands of Tlascalans as victims for human sacrifice. Shikotenka has a plan to stop them.
GUATEMOC. Prince of the Mexica. Age, twenty-seven. Nephew of Moctezuma (he is the son of Moctezuma’s brother Cuitlahauc). As handsome and charismatic as he is rash and brave, Guatemoc will soon meet Shikotenka in a knife fight which he will lose. But Guatemoc survives and goes on to play an important role in the story.
PEDRO DE ALVARADO. Age, thirty-three. Close friend and ally of Cortes. Alvarado is handsome and cruel – a charming psychopath. He is also a brilliant swordsman and a notorious lover of gold. When we meet Alvarado he is with Diego de Velazquez, the Governor of Cuba, who is attempting to bribe him to betray Cortes. Velazquez wishes to remove Cortes from command of the expedition to Mexico and replace him with a sycophant who is more amenable to his own will. He seeks Alvarado’s help in this scheme.
BERNAL DIAZ. Age, twenty-seven. Down-to-earth, honest, experienced Spanish soldier on the expedition to Mexico. From farming stock, no pretensions to nobility, but literate and keeps a diary (even though he self-deprecatingly refers to himself as an “illiterate idiot”). Admires Cortes who has recognised his potential and promoted him to Ensign rank.
GONZALO DE SANDOVAL Age twenty-two. From Hidalgo (minor nobility) family but fallen on hard times. New recruit to the expedition to Mexico. Promoted to Ensign in same ceremony as Diaz. Unlike Diaz, Sandoval has a university education and military and cavalry training but no personal experience of war.
There are of course many more characters in the novel, some minor, some major, but I focus in this post on the eleven listed above as the story is told through their eyes.
Certain supernatural characters also play key roles. They are:
HUITZILOPOCHTLI (referred to throughout the novel as “Hummingbird”), war god of the Mexica. The full translation of the name Huitzilopochtli is “The Hummingbird at the Left Hand of the Sun”. Like all demons, through all the myths and legends of mankind, the purpose of this entity is to multiply human suffering and corrupt all that is good and pure and true in the human spirit. He appears to Moctezuma when the Mexica Emperor is in trance states induced by his frequent consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms. A tempter and a manipulator, Hummingbird deliberately stokes the flames of the conflict between the Mexica and the Spaniards and ultimately backs the Spaniards because he knows they will make life in Mexico even worse than it has been under the Mexica. It is a historical fact that within fifty years of the Spanish conquest the indigenous population of Mexico had been reduced through war, famine and introduced diseases from thirty million to just one million.
SAINT PETER, patron saint of Hernan Cortes. As a child Cortes suffered an episode of severe fever that brought him close to death. His nurse, Maria de Esteban, prayed to Saint Peter for his salvation and the young Cortes miraculously recovered. Ever afterwards Cortes felt he enjoyed a special relationship with this saint and believed he was guided by him in all the great and terrible episodes of his adult life. Like Moctezuma, Cortes encounters Saint Peter in visionary states – in his case dreams.
QUETZALCOATL, “The Plumed Serpent”, the god of peace of ancient Central America. Described as white-skinned and bearded, an age-old prophecy said he had been expelled from Mexico by the forces of evil at some time in remote prehistory but that he would return in the year 1-Acatl (“One-Reed”), in ships that “moved by themselves without paddles” to overthrow a wicked king, abolish the bloody rituals of human sacrifice and restore justice. And as it happened 1519 in our calendar, when Cortes landed in the Yucatan in sailing ships that “moved by themselves without paddles”, was indeed the year One-Reed in the Mexica calendar. Whether this was pure chance or whether some inscrutable design might have been at work, Malinal (described earlier) would eventually teach Cortes how to exploit the myth of Quetzalcoatl. What followed was a ruthless and spectacularly successful campaign to dominate Moctezuma psychologically long before the Spaniards faced him in battle.
Whether in some mysterious sense real, as I rather suspect, or whether only imagined by Moctezuma and Cortes, Hummingbird and Saint Peter played pivotal roles as agents of mischief in the events of the conquest, while the prophecy of the return of Quetzalcoatl was equally fundamental.
I present below the third in the series of articles about my forthcoming novel War God which will be published on 30 May.
War God is my first historical novel and tells the extraordinary story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, a turning point in human history comparable to the feats of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. It is at one level an epic tale of daring deeds, of adventure, of the clash of battle and of the worst excesses of male violence. But it is also, at a more fundamental level, the story of two amazing native American women and of the triumph of their courage, their will, their ingenuity and their capacity to love in a world wounded and twisted out of shape by forces beyond their control.
The younger of my two heroines is Tozi, aged fourteen, who has some gifts as a witch. We meet her amongst thousands of other victims being fattened for ritual sacrifice by the Mexica (whom history knows better as the "Aztecs" and who have been rightly described as "the cruellest and most devilish people imaginable"). Tozi's origins are mysterious. Her mother, also a witch, was cornered and beaten to death by a mob on the streets of Tenochtitlan - the Mexica capital - when Tozi was seven, at which point her own initiation had just begun and her powers were not yet fully developed. She survived as a beggar for the next seven years until she was captured at the age of fourteen and placed in the fattening pen to await the sacrificial knife. Tozi has certain magical talents of which the most important is the ability to make herself invisible. However at the point where War God opens she lacks skill and experience and if she attempts to maintain invisibility for more than a few seconds she suffers catastrophic physical consequences.
Some might think that the Mexica obsession with sorcery as I depict it in War God, the use of animal familiars (and even transformation into animal forms), the ability to make oneself invisible, the concoction of spells and herbal potions by women, and the persecution of women for such practices, were purely European concerns. In these matters, however, as in so many others, the Spanish of the sixteenth century had much more in common with the Mexica than they realized. Witchcraft was widespread in Central America and endemic to the culture of the region and thus while a girl called Tozi will not be found in any history book she is true to the spirit of the times.
The second of the two heroines of War God, a beautiful courtesan and sex-slave of the Mexica, is very much based on a real personality whom the history books have a great deal to say about. The conquistadors knew her as Dona Marina, and also as La Malinche, but her real name - by which I refer to her throughout my story - was Malinal. Aged twenty-one, we meet her in the fattening pen in Tenochtitlan where she, like Tozi, has been imprisoned awaiting sacrifice. Malinal is fluent both in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica and in the Mayan language. Later in the story her linguistic skills will play a vital role when she seeks out Hernan Cortes, leader of the five hundred Spanish adventurers who sailed from Cuba in February 1519 in a desperate bid to conquer the Mexica empire with its standing army of two hundred thousand men. Malinal becomes Cortes's interpreter and soon his lover. She teaches him about Moctezuma's superstitions and weaknesses of character and shows him how, against all odds, the Mexica can be defeated. "Aside from God Himself," Cortes was much later to admit, "it is to Malinal I owe my conquest of Mexico."
First and foremost, therefore, though it is many other things as well, War God is the story of Malinal and Tozi, their struggle to survive in the fattening pen, their journey to the top of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan where Moctezuma waits with his obsidian knife to cut out their hearts during an immense festival of blood, their terrifying escape, and the revenge they ultimately take upon the Mexica using Cortes as their instrument.
Along the way these two remarkable young women will confront and overcome appalling physical and spiritual dangers and be forced to find reserves of strength within themselves they never knew they possessed, manifesting the victory of the human spirit in a time of darkness and in the face of almost unimaginable adversity.
Let's make believe.
That's what you do when you write fiction, even though, in the process, you may set the foundations of your fantasy in the solid ground of reality.
That's what I did when I began work on War God, my historical novel about the Spanish conquest of Mexico. I knew from my research that Hernan Cortes, the Spanish leader, and Moctezuma the emperor of the Mexica (the people better known as the 'Aztecs') were both deeply 'spiritual' men. I knew that Moctezuma frequently entered trance states to communicate with Huitzilopochtli, the War God of the Mexica, and that this entity was very real to him. I knew that Cortes had been convinced since his childhood that he was mystically protected by Saint Peter. And I knew, as the apocalyptic events of the conquest unfolded between 1519 and 1521, that both men felt inspired, and allowed their policies and decisions to be guided, by these beings (who we might prefer to construe as figments of superstition but who were undoubtedly very real to them). This guidance from the 'War God' and the 'saint' made everything much, much worse, made both men much crueler, much more fanatical, much more violent - much more wicked - than they might have been if left to their own devices.
Since I was writing a novel, since I was pretending, since I was making believe, I felt free to wonder and what I wondered was this - What if the being that Cortes saw as Peter was not a saint? What if the being that Moctezuma saw as Huitzilopochtli was not a god? What if, instead, they were really one and the same demonic entity who - like all demons everywhere through all the myths and legends of mankind - was in the business of adding to and multiplying the pain and suffering and misery of the world, corrupting all that is good and pure and true in the human spirit, and tempting us to venture ever further along the path of wickedness and evil?
Such a possibility could not be considered in any work of non-fiction but it is one of the many freedoms of the novelist's craft, while remaining solidly grounded in the facts, to be able to explore extraordinary ideas of this sort and, in the process, perhaps even to reveal hidden dimensions of history.
Thus it is undoubtedly the case, guided as he was by the 'War God' Huitzilopochtli, that Moctezuma presided over a society with a psychopathic lust for human sacrifice in which depraved rituals - such as flaying victims and wearing their skins - were celebrated. Likewise it is undoubtedly the case that life for those subject peoples whose miserable lot it was to supply the Mexica with the majority of their victims was precarious and filled with terror and suffering. Yet it is also true that things became even worse, even more terrible, even more 'demonic' after the Spanish conquest - guided by the influence of 'Saint Peter' on Cortes - was complete and that within fifty years the indigenous population of Mexico had been reduced through genocidal war, famine and introduced diseases from an estimated thirty million to just one million.
Yes, I found myself thinking as I wrote the novel, it really does feel like a demon was at work in Mexico at that time, a tempter and a manipulator who deliberately stoked the flames of the conflict and who ultimately backed the Spaniards because he knew they would unleash the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
It is interesting to wonder what the world we live in today would have been like if the Spanish conquest of Mexico had never taken place, or been guided to unfold in a different way. For the pattern of genocide that Cortes set in that benighted land was followed slavishly little more than a decade later by Pizarro in Peru and ultimately became the model for the dealings of all the European powers with all the indigenous peoples they were to encounter the world over in the centuries of darkness that followed...
Imagine you are a people hardened in battle, with a pugnacious martial code built up through two centuries of continuous warfare with your neighbors.
You are a people accustomed to victory because your numbers, your discipline, your capacity for cruelty, your focus, your sheer will for power, are greater than those of any of the tribes whom you have systematically conquered and abased – tribes whom you prey on for human sacrifices to offer up to your gods and whom you ruthlessly exploit for tribute and slaves. It is not that these neighbors of yours are particularly weak – on the contrary, some who still resist you are skilled fighters. It is just that you are so strong, so skilled, so cunning, so relentless and – above all – so beloved of the gods whom you continually flatter, entertain and nourish with festivals of spectacular cruelty. Who will ever forget the inauguration of the Great Pyramid in your capital city Tenochtitlan when, over four days, the hearts of 80,000 men, women and children were cut out and the streets ran knee-deep in tides of blood? Who could not fail to be awed by the pleasure you take in flaying your victims and dressing up in their skins even as you consume their tender thigh meat with chilies and beans? How else, other than by such techniques of staged – indeed theatrical – terrorism, is it possible to explain your incredible rise to power from a lowly tribe of wandering nomads just two hundred years ago to masters of all you survey today?
You have, perhaps, become somewhat arrogant, somewhat boastful, but who can blame you for that when you can put an army of 200,000 men into the field organised into highly trained regiments called xiquipilli (pronounced shikipilli) each 8000 strong. You use very little metal other than for ornamental items of soft copper. Your priest-king Moctezuma owns a sacred dagger of meteoritic iron but for the most part your weapons, like the weapons of your neighbors, are of stone and wood – flint knives, spears, javelins, maces, war-clubs and mahogany broadswords called maquahuitls into the edges of which are set rows of obsidian blades so sharp they are capable of decapitating a man at a single blow. You do not have guns – you do not even know what guns are yet – but you have tens of thousands of archers skilled in the use of the bow and arrow and divisions of highly-trained specialists wielding lethal atlatls, spear throwers that project clouds of fire-hardened darts over distances of a thousand feet or more.
This was the position of the Aztecs – a position of absolute power and supreme confidence – when the Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortes landed on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in February 1519 with his small fleet of eleven ships and just 490 soldiers. For the most part, young men of humble birth under twenty-five years of age, many freshly out from Spain, these soldiers had volunteered for this seemingly crazy expedition against numberless foes in the hopes of making their fortunes.
Their prospects, from the start, were brighter than the sheer disparity of numbers might suggest. Spain in 1519 was a nation vastly more experienced in war and far more deeply inured to its terrors than were the Aztecs. Less than thirty years previously, in 1492 – the same year that Columbus crossed the Atlantic to establish the first European settlements on the islands of the Gulf of Mexico – Spain had completed the reconquest of its territories (with the fall of the city of Granada) after seven hundred years of continuous warfare against the Moors. And since then there had been numerous other wars in which young men could blood themselves – in Italy where Spain, now in an expansionist mood after driving out the Moors, was heavily engaged and in Hispaniola and Cuba where the native populations had been subjected to the most horrific and merciless genocide.
More than experience, however, the Spanish forces benefited from a scientific approach to warfare that had, for the Aztecs, always been primarily a ritualistic pursuit. Whereas Spanish discipline, tactics and strategy were geared to the annihilation and mass murder of the enemy on the battlefield, the Aztecs were much more interested in capturing enemy combatants alive and dragging them off to be imprisoned and fattened for later sacrifice. In the gigantic battles that were to come the tendency of the Aztecs to try to take living prisoners, and the tactics this required, put them at a great disadvantage against the Spanish whose focus was simply to kill as many of the enemy on the spot as swiftly as possible.
Furthermore in pursuing this single-minded objective the Spaniards had many advantages that were completely unavailable to the Aztecs. The accounts of the conquistadors such as the stoical Bernal Diaz leave no doubt of the vast superiority of Spanish swords of good Toledo steel over the wood and stone weapons of their opponents. Steel-tipped spears and pikes, steel battle-axes, steel daggers all worked terrible slaughter upon the foe. The Spanish crossbows were much more effective killing machines than the simple bows and arrows of the Aztecs. And, of course, that Spaniards had guns – the muskets known as arquebuses, small cannon such as falconets, and larger siege cannon called lombards. In the first battles the Aztecs were utterly discomfited and terrified by Spanish muskets and artillery that they took to be xihucoatl, “fire serpents”, the legendary weapons of the gods themselves.
I will devote a future article to this subject of the weapons, armour and military tactics that contributed so much to the ultimate Spanish victory. Here, however, I want to focus on something else – something completely unexpected and utterly alien to the Aztecs that, perhaps more than any other single factor caused them to lose their boastful self-confidence after years of easy victories over their neighbors and enter into a gloomy state of demoralization and psychological vulnerability. This was the Spanish deployment of animals – horses and war dogs – on the battlefield.
The Aztecs had dogs. They were small, hairless, timid creatures, related to the modern Chihuahua, which were reared not as pets but as a food source. Accordingly when the Aztecs first met the Spanish war dogs – wolfhounds, greyhounds, lurchers, pit bulls and gigantic mastiffs similar to modern Rottweilers, they had absolutely no idea what they were dealing with. Indeed they did not think these animals were dogs at all. They thought they might be some species of dragon – an impression compounded by the fact that the Spanish dogs were armored in chainmail and steel plate like their masters and were thus almost invulnerable to stone weapons. Fasted before battle so they were in a state of voracious, slavering hunger, trained to fight and kill with the utmost ferocity, these terrifying animals already relished human flesh having been used repeatedly in acts of genocide against the Indians of Hispaniola and Cuba. Unleashed in snarling, baying packs, their tongues lolling, drool dripping from their fangs and sparks of fire seeming – in the imagination of the victims – to flash from their eyes, they tore into the Aztec front lines with devastating effect, disemboweling men, ripping out their throats, feasting on their soft, unarmored bodies. “They have flat ears and are spotted like ocelots,” reported one Aztec eyewitness of the Spanish war dogs. “They have great dragging jowls and fangs like daggers and blazing eyes of burning yellow that flash fire and shoot off sparks. Their bellies are gaunt, their flanks long and lean with the ribs showing. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there, panting, their tongues dripping venom.”
The second war animal of the Spanish, even more devastating than the dogs, was the horse. Horses, all of course imported from Europe, were scarce in the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba in 1519 and were very expensive. Cortes (himself an expert horseman) was thus only able to acquire sixteen of them for the conquest. This small cavalry corps, however, was to prove decisive, again and again saving the day when the tiny Spanish army was surrounded and faced imminent destruction at the hands of overwhelming numbers of foes.
The last horses of the Americas had been extinct for more than twelve thousand years in 1519, so the horse was a completely unknown animal to the Aztecs. The closest creature they could compare it to was the deer but there were no deer in Mexico anywhere near the size of the massive destriers the Spanish rode into battle. Moreover the very idea of men transported on the backs of animals was new and outlandish to the Aztecs – so outlandish, in fact, that when the cavalry were first sighted they were taken to be supernatural creatures, part beast, part man, and not of this earth. And again, as with the war dogs, this impression was enhanced by the gleaming metal armor – barding – that the horses wore and that made them, seemingly, impossible to kill.
More important, however, was the fact that European armies had spent thousands of years learning to withstand charges of heavy horse and developing effective counter-tactics. The Aztecs had no such experience and were utterly dismayed and confounded as the Spanish cavalry bore down upon them at close to thirty miles an hour, lances aimed at their faces, the ground thundering and shaking. Then came the hideous shock and clamor of the impact, the huge war animals snorting and neighing and trampling men under their iron-shod hooves, and the Aztec ranks reeled, parted and broke in terrorized confusion running in all directions only to be cut down by the lances and flashing cavalry sabers of the riders.
The effect of these cavalry charges cannot be overstated. Combined with the horror of the packs of savage dogs scything through the Aztec formations, they gave the Spaniards crucial and unique advantages in battle. A new form of warfare had come to the Americas. Things would never be the same again.
For me as a writer, imaginatively inhabiting these scenes, putting myself in the place of the Aztec and Spanish combatants, trying to feel what they felt and to see what they saw, represented an exciting and complex challenge. But it underlined why I have started to write novels and what I hope I have achieved in War God. The fictional approach allows me to explore history in an entirely new way, not simply with the array of facts that are fundamental to non-fiction (though there are plenty of facts in my novel) but with due space given to emotions, to feelings, to sensations, to the smell and taste and touch of the moment, and to the crucial aspect of character. Had I approached historical figures like Cortes, or his extraordinary and courageous native American lover Malinal, or the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, from the perspective of non-fiction I would have never been able to get “inside their heads” in the way this novel has allowed me to do or to work towards such an in-depth understanding of their motives, their behavior and their reactions to one another as fellow humans caught up in utterly remarkable events.
This is the first of several sample chapters from my novel War God that I will put online here in the two months prior to publication. It’s Chapter Two, in which we meet Tozi, a fourteen-year-old witch, one of the two main heroines of my story. She is a prisoner in the women’s fattening pen in the city of Tenochtitlan where she and thousands of others are being held for use as human sacrifices by the people who history knows as the Aztecs but who referred to themselves as the Mexica. “Take care that they do not escape,” state the Mexica priestly regulations concerning the preparation of victims. “Feed them well; let them be fat and desirable for sacrifice on the day of the feast of our god. Let our god rejoice in them since they belong to him.” The chapter unfolds on 18 February 1519 and though the Mexica do not know it yet Spanish forces under Cortes are preparing to set sail from nearby Cuba to destroy them. The Spanish conquest of Mexico, the central subject matter of War God, is about to begin.
Tucked in a secret pocket inside her filthy blouse Tozi carried two atI-inan leaves rolled into delicate little tubes, crimped at each end and filled with the sticky red paste of the chalalatli root. The medicine, obtained by barter from an unscrupulous guard in a dark corner of the women’s fattening pen, was for her friend Coyotl, so Tozi kept her hand protectively over the pocket as she threaded her way through the crowds of prisoners, acutely conscious of how easily the tubes would be broken if anyone bumped into her.
Consisting of two interconnected wings, each a hundred paces long and thirty paces deep, set at right-angles to one another like an arm crooked around the northwest corner of the sacred precinct, the fattening pen had held just four hundred women when Tozi first arrived here seven months previously. Now, thanks to Moctezuma’s recent wars with the Tlascalans, it held more than two thousand and droves of new captives were still arriving every day. The rear of both wings was built of solid stone, and formed part of the larger enclosure wall of the sacred complex as a whole. The flat roof, also of stone, was supported by rows of giant stone columns. On its inner side, facing the great pyramid, the pen was open except for a final row of stone columns and the stout bamboo prison bars that filled the gaps from floor to ceiling between them.
Tozi was near the back of the northern wing making her way towards the western wing where she’d left Coyotl when she saw five young Tlascalan women clustered in her path. Her heart sank as recognised Xoco amongst them, a cruel, hulking, brute of a girl, a couple of years older than herself. She tried to dodge but the crowd was too dense and Xoco lunged forward shoving her hard in the chest with both hands. Tozi reeled and would have fallen but two of the others caught her and pushed her back at Xoco again. Then Xoco’s fist slammed into her belly and drove the air out of her lungs with a great whoop. Tozi stumbled and fell to her knees but even as she gasped for breath an instinct she could not suppress sent her hand searching inside her blouse for the medicine tubes.
Xoco spotted the movement. “What you got in there?” she screamed, her face writhing with greed.
Tozi felt the outline of the tubes. They seemed bent. She thought one of them might be broken. “Nothing,” she wheezed as she brought out her hand. “I ... I ... just ... wanted to find out what you’d done ... to my ribs.”
“Liar!” Xoco spat, “You’re hiding something! Show me!”
The other four girls jeered as Tozi arched her back and loosened the ties on her blouse exposing her flat, boyish chest. “I don’t have anything to hide”, she panted. “See for yourself.”
“I see a WITCH,” said Xoco. “A crafty little WITCH! Hiding something from me.”
The rest of the gang hissed like a basket of snakes. “WITCH,” they agreed. “WITCH! She’s a WITCH!”
Tozi was still kneeling but now a heavy kick to her ribs knocked her sideways. Someone stamped on her head and she looked into her attackers’ minds and saw they weren’t going to stop. They would just go on beating and kicking and stamping her until she was dead.
She felt calm as she decided she would use the spell of invisibility. But the spell itself could kill her so she needed a distraction first.
Curling her body into a ball, ignoring the kicks and blows, she began to sing a dreary song, deep down at the bottom of her voice – Hmm-a-hmm-hmm... hmm-hmm ... Hmm-a-hmm-hmm ... hmm-hmm – raising the pitch with each repeated note, summoning forth a fog of psychic confusion and madness.
It wasn’t a fog anyone could see, but it got into the girls’ eyes and minds, making Xoco screech and turn furiously on her own friends, grabbing a handful of hair here, clawing a face there, interrupting the attack long enough for Tozi to surge to her feet.
She was already whispering the spell of invisibility as she stumbled away, turning her focus inward, slowing the urgent beat of her heart, imagining she was transparent and free as the air. The more strongly and vividly she visualised herself in this form, the more she felt herself fade, the fewer the hostile glances she received and the easier it became to penetrate the crowd of onlookers.
The spell had always hurt her.
But never really badly unless she held it for longer than a count of ten.
Gaps opened up and she flowed through them.
No solid obstacle could now block her path.
It was as though she were Ehecatl, god of the air …
The spell was very seductive. There was something wonderful about its embrace. But when Tozi reached five she stopped the magic, found a patch of shadow and slowly faded back into visibility again – just a grimy, snot-nosed, lice-infested fourteen-year-old girl, quietly minding her own business.
First she checked her pockets and was relieved to find the two little tubes of chalalatli still mercifully intact.
Then she felt her ribs and face and satisfied herself that nothing was broken despite the beating.
Better still, she realised, the price of the fade was nowhere near as high as it might have been – indeed no more than a punishing headache,and flashing lights and wavy lines exploding intermittently before her eyes. She knew from past experience the visual effects would soon subside but the headache would continue, gradually diminishing in intensity, for several days.
Until then it would be dangerous to use the spell again.
But she had no intention of doing so.
She gave a bitter laugh. Witch? she thought. I’m not much of a witch!
Tozi could send out the fog, she could read minds and sometimes she could command wild animals, but a real witch would have been able to make herself invisible for long enough to escape the fattening pen, and she couldn’t do that. Ever since she could remember she’d been able to speak the spell of invisibility but if she faded for more than a ten count she paid a terrible price.
The last time she’d risked it was the day her mother was taken by surprise and beaten to death in front of her. It had been one of those times when the priests had whipped Tenochtitlan’s masses into a frenzy of fear and hatred against witches and her mother was amongst those who’d been named. Tozi had been seven years old then and she’d faded just long enough – no more than a thirty count – to escape the rampaging mob and hide. It had saved her life but it had also paralysed her arms and legs for a day and a night, filled her body with raging fire and burst something in her brain so that her head felt hacked open, as though by a blunt axe, and blood poured from her ears and nose.
After that, fending for herself on the streets of the great city, she’d not had the courage to try a fade for many years, not even for a five count. But since being seized along with other beggars by the temple catchers and thrown in the pen to be fattened for sacrifice she’d been working on the problem again, working on it every day. She’d even experimented with a fade from time to time, just for brief instants when it could most help her, slowly feeling her way through the deep tangled magic her mother had begun to teach her in the years before the mob. Sometimes she thought she was close to a solution but it always vanished like a wisp just as it came within her grasp.
Meanwhile there were some, like Xoco and her gang, who’d become suspicious. They simply couldn’t understand why Tozi was never amongst those selected for sacrifice when the priests came for victims, why again and again it was always others who were taken and this unlikely ragged girl who remained. That was why they suspected witchcraft, and of course they were right, but why did it make them want to hurt her?
If it wasn’t so tragic, their vicious stupidity would almost have been funny Tozi thought. Had the girls forgotten that just outside the sacred plaza, and presently going about the daily business of their capital city, the Mexica waited to hurt them all, very, very badly – in fact to murder them? Had they forgotten that they would all, sooner or later, be marched up the great pyramid and bent backwards over the execution stone where their hearts would be cut out with a black obsidian knife?
Simultaneous with the thought, Tozi’s own heart quickened and she felt a wave of apprehension. A big part of being invisible wasn’t magic at all, but common sense. Don’t stand out. Don’t offend anyone. Don’t get yourself noticed. But now she saw she had been noticed! Despite the fade, which should have thrown off all pursuit, a girl who’d lurked in the background during Xoco’s attack had followed her. She was eighteen, this girl, or perhaps twenty, tall and lithe with glowing skin, full, sensual lips, big, dark eyes and straight black hair that fell almost to her waist. She didn’t look like a Tlascalan, and she was older than the rest of Xoco’s gang, but Tozi wasn’t taking any chances. Without a backward glance she ducked into the crowd and ran.
The other girl couldn’t keep up with her – definitely not a Tlascalan then! – and Tozi very soon gave her the slip, crossing the whole width of the pen from the rear wall to the bamboo bars at the corner of the north and west wings and burrowing in amongst hundreds of women who had gathered there to stare out through the bars across the smooth paving of the plaza towards the steep northern stairway of the great pyramid.
Even though the routine dawn sacrifices had already been carried out, Tozi sensed the familiar mood of ominous anticipation in the air, her flesh prickled and the pounding pain in her head grew worse.
Just ten days previously the old year 13-Tochtli – Thirteen-Rabbit – had come to an end and the new year 1-Acatl – One-Reed – had begun, taking its turn again for the first time in fifty-two years as was the case for each one of the fifty-two named years that danced the circle of the great Calendar Round. There was something special about One-Reed, however – something terrifying for all devotees of the war god Hummingbird but most notably for the rulers of the Mexica themselves. As everyone knew, One-Reed years were linked inextricably to Quetzalcoatl, god of peace, Hummingbird’s great antagonist. Indeed it had long ago been prophesied that when Quetzalcoatl returned he would do so in a One-Reed year.
In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Mexica, the name Quetzalcoatl meant “Feathered Serpent”. Ancient traditions maintained that he had been the first god-king of the lands now ruled by the Mexica. Born in a One-Reed year, he had been a god of goodness who was said to have stopped up his ears with his fingers when addressed on the subject of war. The traditions described him as tall, fair-skinned, ruddy complexioned and richly bearded. The traditions also told how Hummingbird and Tezcatilpoca, that other god of violence whose name meant “Smoking Mirror”, had plotted against Quetzalcoatl and succeeded in driving him out of Mexico – and how he had been forced to flee across the eastern ocean on a raft of serpents. This, too, had happened in a One-Reed year. Before departing from the Yucatan coast Quetzalcoatl had prophesied that he would return many years in the future, once again in a One-Reed year. When that time came, he said, he would cross back over the eastern ocean, “in a boat that moved by itself without paddles”, and would appear in great power to overthrow the cults of Hummingbird and Tezcatilpoca. All those who followed them would be cast down into Mictlan, the shadowy realm of the dead, a wicked king would be overthrown and a new era would begin when the gods would once again accept sacrifices of fruits and flowers and cease their clamour for human blood.
For the ten days since the inception of the current One-Reed year there had been rumours that a new cycle of sacrifices was planned, a spectacular festival of blood to appease and strengthen Hummingbird against the possible return of Quetzalcoatl. Guessing the commotion at the pyramid must be connected with this, Tozi decided Coyotl would have to wait a few more moments while she found out. Holding her hand over the pocket where the medicine tubes lay, she wormed forward through the crowd until her face was jammed against the bars.
As usual the pyramid impressed itself upon her as forcefully as a blow to the face. Towering in the midst of the plaza, glowing poisonously in the sun, its four levels were painted respectively green, red, turquoise and yellow. On the summit platform, tall, narrow and dark and seeming to eat up the light that shone down on it, stood Hummingbird’s temple.
Tozi gasped when she saw that Moctezuma himself, dressed in all his finery, was amongst the black-robed priests clustered round the altar in front of the temple. Less surprising was the presence of fifty, she counted them – no, fifty-two! – lean and beautiful young Tlascalan men, daubed with white paint, dressed in paper garments, who were trudging with heavy feet up the steep steps of the northern stairway.
Tozi had seen many deaths in the past seven months, inflicted in many ingenious and horrible ways. Despite all her efforts to stay alive she was constantly afraid she might be snatched aside by the priests and murdered at any moment. Still she could not rid herself of the pain she felt whenever she saw others climbing the pyramid to die and she gasped as the first young man reached the top of the steps.
At once a drum began to beat.
Four burly priests flung the victim on his back over the killing stone and took position at each of his arms and legs, holding him down tight, stretching his chest. Then with the jerky, ungainly movements of a puppet Moctezuma loomed over him, clutching a long obsidian knife that glinted in the sun. Tozi had seen it all before but still she watched, rooted to the spot, as the Great Speaker raised the knife and plunged it to the hilt in the victim’s sternum. He cut upward, urgent but precise. When he found the heart he sliced it vigorously from its moorings, snatched it out amidst fountains of blood, and placed it, still beating, on the brazier in front of Hummingbird’s temple. There was a great hissing and sizzling and a burst of steam and smoke rose up at the top of the pyramid. Then the victim’s body was rolled off the stone and Tozi heard hacking and rending sounds as skilled butcher priests fell on it and amputated the arms and legs for later consumption. She saw the head being carried into the temple to be spitted on the skull rack. Finally the torso was sent rolling and bouncing down the pyramid steps, leaving bloody smears all the way to the plaza below where it would soon be joined in a rising heap by the unwanted remains of all the other docile young men presently climbing the northern stairway.
Tozi knew from seven months of witnessing such scenes that the pile of torsos would be gathered up in wheelbarrows after nightfall and trundled off to feed the wild beasts in Moctezuma’s zoo.
The Mexica were monsters, she thought. So cruel. She hated them! She would never be their docile victim!
But evading them was becoming more difficult.
Three searing beats of pain shook her head, and a burst of flashing lights exploded before her eyes. She clenched her teeth to stop herself crying out
It wasn’t just that she’d started to be noticed by some of the other prisoners – though that was dangerous enough. The real problem was caring for Coyotl, a huge responsibility that she knew she could not hope to sustain in these conditions. The only solution was to find a way to fade for longer than a ten count without having a massive physical collapse. Then she could get them out of here.
Tozi edged back and took her eyes off the pyramid, distracted for a moment by the way the morning sun poured through the bamboo prison bars creating stripes of deep shadow and stripes of intense, brilliant light, filled with swirling motes of dust. Suddenly she thought she saw the tall, beautiful woman again, gliding through the haze like a ghost. She blinked and the woman was gone.
Who are you? thought Tozi. Are you a witch like me? She felt the cool, packed earth of the floor under her feet and sensed the warmth and odours of the other prisoners all around her. Then, like an evil spirit, a breeze smelling of blood blew up out of the southeast and the screams of Moctezuma’s next victim filled the air.
Normally the High Priest wielded the obsidian knife and Moctezuma would not become involved except on the most important State occasions. It followed that only something very significant could explain his presence here this morning.
With a shudder Tozi turned her back on the pyramid and moved swiftly through the crowd, disturbing no one, to the place where she had left Coyotl.
Despite his fifty-five years and his tough reputation, Diego de Velazquez, the conqueror and governor of Cuba, seemed on the verge of tears. A blush suffused his pale pasty skin and his jowls, grown fat and heavy of late, wobbled with every movement of his oversized head.
“Ah, Pedro,” he said, “my friend.” He put a menacing edge on the last word and thrust out his double chin with its neatly-trimmed spade beard streaked with yellow tobacco stains. “Something’s going on,” He set his lips in a line so mean and thin they became almost invisible. “I have to know where you stand on it.”
Velazquez’ notorious bad temper was popularly attributed to haemorrhoids the size of grapes. He sat in obvious discomfort on a mahogany throne behind a massive square mahogany writing table in the midst of an echoing, high-ceilinged marble audience chamber. Pedro de Alvarado had met the governor frequently, but never here and never before in the ceremonial robes he wore today. He guessed with annoyance that the events of the last two hours – the herald, the summons, the gallop from the docks to the palace, the insultingly-long wait in a sweltering heavily-guarded corridor, this huge formal room with its imposing furniture and even Velazquez’ robes of office – were all part of an elaborate set-up designed to intimidate him.
Alvarado stood opposite the governor on the other side of the table with his right hand open, long fingers resting lightly on his sword belt. He was thirty-three years old, broad-shouldered and strong but light on his feet with the easy grace of a practised fencer. His thick blond hair hung to his shoulders and an extravagant blond moustache, elaborately curled and waxed, decorated his upper lip. Fine featured, with a firm chin, a long straight nose, bright blue eyes and a duelling scar that he found rather fetching running from his right temple to the corner of his right eye, he was a man who had broken many women’s hearts. He was also rich in a small way, having prospered in Cuba these past five years thanks to lands, mines and Indian slaves granted him by Velazquez.
“My herald told me you were loading heavy hunters on board that carrack of yours,” the governor said suddenly. “The San Jorge?” His right eye twitched, as though in sympathy with Alvarado’s scar.
“The San Sebastian.” Alvarado corrected. What game was Velazquez playing here? Did he really not remember?
“Oh yes. Of course. The San Sebastian. A fine ship which my generosity helped you buy. So my question is ...” A long, silent pause. That weird twitch again. “Since our expedition to the New Lands is purely for trade and reconnaissance, what possible use do you have for cavalry horses?”
The last words came out in a rush, as though Velazquez were embarrassed to raise the matter, and Alvarado launched smoothly into the lie he’d rehearsed with Cortes just that morning – the lie that half the fleet already knew by heart. “For self-defence,” he said. “Cordoba’s men took such a beating last year because they didn’t have the advantage of cavalry. We’re not going to be caught out the same way.”
Velazquez sat back in his throne and drummed on its arms with thick ring-encrusted fingers. “I want to believe you Pedro,” he said. “You came with me from Hispaniola and you’ve been a loyal ally to me all these years in Cuba. But I still don’t understand why you were loading the horses today or why another six were seen going on board the Santa Maria at the same time. Why load the horses now when you’re not sailing for another week?”
Alvarado spoke in his most honeyed tones, as though reassuring a lover: “What your informants saw was a routine training exercise Don Diego! Nothing more sinister than that. If the horses are to serve us we must be able to get them on and off our ships quickly without broken legs. It’s an exercise we’ll practise daily until we sail next week.”
There was another long silence during which Velazquez visibly relaxed. Finally he made a horrible attempt at a smile. “I knew you wouldn’t be involved in anything dishonourable Pedro,” he said. “That’s why I called you here. I need a man I can trust.” He rang a little bell and from a curtained doorway a native Taino Indian clad in a white tunic appeared carrying a wooden chair. He crossed the audience chamber with a peculiar bobbing motion and the slap of bare feet, placed the chair behind Alvarado and retreated. Alvarado sat down but his flesh crawled at the proximity of the indigene. These creatures were, in his opinion, barely human.
Velazquez reached beneath the table and with a grunt pulled out a bulging silk moneybag, opened its drawstrings and poured the gleaming, jingling contents in a flood onto the table. The river of gold was heavy and bright. Involuntarily Alvarado leaned forward in his chair and his eyes widened as he tried to estimate its value.
“Five thousand pesos de oro,” said Velazquez, as though reading his thoughts. “It’s yours if you will assist me in a certain matter.”
Five thousand pesos! A small fortune! Alvarado’s love of gold was legendary. He licked his lips: “What do you want me to do?”
“You’re a close friend of Don Hernando Cortes?”
“Yes, he’s my friend. Since we were boys.”
“That’s what I hear. But is your friendship with Cortes more important to you than your loyalty to me?” Velazquez began to sweep the golden pesos back into the bag.
Alvarado’s eyes followed the money: “I don’t understand.”
“He’s planning to betray me,” stormed the governor, “though God knows I’ve loved him as if he were my own son.” Once again his face had taken on the congested look of a man about to burst into tears. “Believe me Pedro what I have learnt this past day has been like a thousand daggers through my heart.”
Alvarado feigned shock: “Cortes? Betray you? I don’t believe it... He’s told me many times he loves you like a father.”
“Words, mere words. When the fleet reaches the New Lands I have sure intelligence he will no longer act as my viceroy but will declare the expedition his own. Too late by far for anyone to stop him! So I need your help now.” Velazquez drew the strings of the moneybag closed and rested his hands proprietarily on top of it. “But first I must know… Can I trust you? Do I have your loyalty? Will you deliver your friend to me if I ask you to do so?”
“Friends come and go,” said Alvarado smoothly, “but gold is a constant companion. If you don’t trust me trust gold…”
“If you do exactly what I ask,” said Velazquez, then all this is yours.”
Alvarado sat back in the chair, his eyes fixed on the bag. “Ask me,” he said.
“Invite Cortes to join you for dinner on the San Sebastian late this evening. Shall we say around ten pm? Make some pretext, something private you want to discuss. Get him intrigued...”
“Why so late?”
“Less people around, less chance for things to go wrong.”
“What if he’s otherwise engaged?”
“Then you must move the invitation to tomorrow instead. But do all you can to persuade him to join you tonight. Dine in your quarters. Serve him wine.” Velazquez searched in his robes and brought out a little glass phial containing a clear, colourless liquid. “Pour this first into the wine you will give him. Within an hour he will be... Indisposed.”
“No! I want the blackguard alive! The draft will make him puke his guts out, run a high fever, sweat like a lathered horse. You’ll send a man to fetch a doctor – Dr La Pena. You know him, yes?”
Alvarado nodded. La Pena was a turd. He wondered how much Velazquez was paying him for his part in the plot.
“He’ll come at once,” the governor continued. “Whatever time of night it is. But when he examines Cortes he’ll say he can’t treat him on board ship and he must be brought to his hospital in town... The doctor’s own carriage will take him there.”
“Cortes’ people aren’t going to like that.”
“They’ll have no choice. Their master will be ill, close to death...”
“Some of them are going to want to ride with him.”
“No matter. When the carriage is clear of the harbour a squad of my palace guard will be waiting for it at the roadside. Anyone with Cortes will be killed, he’ll be brought to me here for questioning, and you, my dear Pedro” – Velazquez patted the bag – “will be an even richer man than you are already.”
“You have thought of everything Don Diego.”
Perhaps detecting a little of the scorn buried deep in Alvarado’s tone, Velazquez frowned: “It’s underhand but necessary,” he explained. “Cortes has become powerful since I gave him command of the fleet. If I arrest him openly there’s going to be a fight...”
Alvarado hastened to agree: “He’s recruited more than five hundred men, signed them up with bribes and promises and dreams. Their loyalty is to him before anyone else...”
“That’s exactly why he’s so dangerous! That’s why this poison has to be rooted out now!”
“But I see one great weakness in your plan.”
Velazquez bristled: “Weakness? What weakness?”
“It only works if I’m the sort of man who would betray Cortes for five thousand pieces of gold.”
Velazquez was hunched forward now, an ugly scowl making him look suddenly monstrous. “And are you not such a man?” he said.
It seemed a good moment for some drama so Alvarado sprang to his feet, sent his chair crashing back and towered over the table, his right hand resting on his sword belt. “Five thousand pesos is a paltry price to betray a friend.”
“Ten thousand then.”
“Twenty thousand, not a peso less.”
Velazquez made a strangled sound: “It’s a lot of money.”
“You’ll lose a thousand times more if Cortes does what you fear.”
Alvarado could see the idea of paying out such a huge sum was almost too horrible for the old man to contemplate. For a moment he wondered if he had gone too far, asked too much. But then Velazquez reached under the table again and with great effort pulled out three more large moneybags, setting them down beside the first. “Very well,” he coughed. He seemed to have something caught in his throat. “Twenty thousand it is. Do we have a deal?”
“We have a deal,” said Alvarado. As he spoke he sensed danger and spun round to find the governor’s personal champion, bodyguard and bullyboy, a gigantic warrior named Zemudio, looming silently over him. The man was big as a barn door, bald as the full moon and stealthy as a cat. He’d been in Cuba for less than a month, joining the governor’s service direct from the Italian wars where he’d won a fearsome reputation. As yet he’d fought no bouts in the islands.
“My, my,” said Alvarado, annoyed that he had to crane his neck like a child to see Zemudio’s stubborn, oafish face. “Where did you come from?” Another of those creepy curtained doors, he thought. He looked the champion up and down. The brute wore light body-armour – knee-length breeches and a sleeveless vest, both made of padded cotton with hundreds of small steel plates riveted into the lining. He was armed with an old-fashioned falchion that was exceptionally long and heavy in the blade. Though crude, and unsuited to a gentleman, this cutlass-like weapon wielded by a strong, experienced hand could do terrible damage.
For a moment Alvarado locked stares with the champion, testing his will. Small, brown, patient eyes glared back at him, unblinking, flat as buttons, filled with stupid self-confidence.
As the aura of threat between the two men became palpable Velazquez spoke: “It’s alright Zemudio. Don Pedro and I have reached an accommodation.”
At once the huge bodyguard stepped back.
Alvarado retrieved his chair and sat down. “Why was any of that necessary?” he asked. His neck and shoulders prickled under Zemudio’s violent stare but he refused to acknowledge him.
“I couldn’t be sure you’d deal,” said the governor. “If you didn’t” – he drew his hand meaningfully across his throat.
“You’d have had me killed?”
“Of course. But all that is behind us now. You give me Cortes, I give you these twenty thousand gold pesos...”
“Who leads the expedition – when Cortes is gone?”
“Your question is to the point,” said the governor. He pulled a sheet of vellum from a thick heap on the table in front of him, dipped a quill in an ink-well and began to write in a small, spidery hand. As the quill grated across the calfskin Alvarado tried to read the words upside down but couldn’t make them out. Velazquez frowned with concentration, pushing the tip of his tongue out between his lips like a schoolboy in an examination.
When the governor was done, he read through what he had written, blotted the page and placed it in a document wallet. A motion of his finger was sufficient to bring Zemudio surging to his side. “Go at once to Narvaez. Give the wallet to him. He’ll know what to do.”
As the bodyguard placed the wallet in a leather satchel and strode from the room, Velazquez turned back to Alvarado: “I’ve chosen a man I can trust to lead the expedition,” he said. “My cousin Panfilo de Narvaez. Zemudio takes my orders to him now.”
Narvaez! A complete ass! Incompetent, vainglorious and foolish! In every way the antipodes of Cortes! But Alvarado kept these thoughts to himself and instead asked slyly: “Who will be second in command?”
“I thought perhaps you Don Pedro, if you agree.”
Alvarado didn’t hesitate: “Of course I agree. It will be an honour and my privilege to serve under a great captain like Narvaez.”
Velazquez grasped one of the fat moneybags, rose from his throne and walked round the mahogany table. Alvarado also stood and the governor passed the bag to him. “A quarter of your payment in advance,” he said. “You’ll get the rest when you’ve delivered Cortes.” He awkwardly embraced Alvarado and told him to return at once to his ship: “Send your invitation to Cortes. Make ready for tonight.” He clapped his hands and the great formal doors of the audience chamber were swung open by two iron-masked guardsmen armed with double-headed battle axes.
Alvarado didn’t return to his ship.
When he’d passed the last of the governor’s guards and made certain no one followed him, he led his white stallion Bucephalus out from the palace stables, secured his gold in a saddle bag and rode at full gallop after Zemudio.
The only way to get to Narvaez’ estate lay across dry, hilly country, partially overgrown with groves of acacia trees and intercut by a series of shallow ravines. The champion had left a trail a three-year-old could follow, so quite soon Alvarado started to get glimpses of him – that broad back, that bald head, that air, obvious even from afar, of unshakable self-confidence.
Let’s see how confident you really are, thought Alvarado. He touched his spurs gently to Bucephalus’ flanks, the great war horse thundered forward fast as a bolt from a crossbow, and the distance began to close rapidly.
As Pepillo regained consciousness he heard a man's voice: "Come, come, Father." The voice was deep, faintly reproving and filled with calm, confident authority. "This is no way for a religious to behave on the public highway. Has the heat overmastered you? Have you lost your reason?"
With tremendous gratitude and relief Pepillo discovered that he had been released from the crushing grip on his nose. He rolled over and pushed himself onto his knees, head down, coughing and gurgling, clearing a torrent of blood and phlegm from his windpipe. Over the sounds he was making he heard Munoz speaking through clenched teeth: "Where I choose to discipline my page is not your business sir".
"Hmmm. Perhaps you're right. But you're a man of God, Father - a man - and this boy is little more than a child, and does not the Good Book say that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to ones such as these?"
Pepillo was breathing freely again. Some blood was still running from his nose, but not enough to choke on. He scrambled to his feet and saw his rescuer mounted on a big chestnut stallion, towering over Munoz and himself.
"WITHOLD NOT CORRECTION FROM THE CHILD", Munoz suddenly thundered. "THOU SHALT BEAT HIM WITH THE ROD, AND SHALT DELIVER HIS SOUL FROM HELL."
The man on the horse nodded his head. "Proverbs 23," he said, "verses 13 and 14... But I still prefer the words of Christ our Saviour: 'Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea ...' Matthew 18:6 if I remember correctly."
"You dare to tell me my scriptures!" Munoz snapped.
"The word of God is for all, Father..."
By now Pepillo very much liked the man on the horse, not only for saving him from a painful beating, or because he had the nerve to cite the Bible at Munoz, but also because he looked splendid and warlike and must surely be a great lord. He wore long leather boots, a fine Toledo broadsword strapped over his rich purple doublet, a black velvet cloak with knots and buttons of gold, and a large gold medallion suspended from a thick gold chain around his neck. On his head, tilted at a jaunty angle, was a broad-brimmed leather hat with a plume of feathers. Perhaps thirty-five years old, but radiating an air of worldly experience that made him seem far older, he was deeply tanned with a long oval face, a generous forehead and black hair cropped short military style. A beard followed the firm edge of his jaw and covered his chin; a long moustache decorated his upper lip. Disconcertingly, his eyes were different sizes, shapes and colours - the left being large, round and grey, the right being smaller, oval, and so dark it was almost black.
"The word of God is indeed for all,"said Munoz gruffly, "but most do not merit it and fewer truly understand it."He signalled Pepillo: "Pick up the bags boy. "We still have a long way to go."
Pepillo jumped to obey but the horseman said "Hold!" and raised his gauntleted right hand. He turned to Munoz. "I see you wear the habit of the Dominicans, Father. But the monastery is that way" - he pointed to the town - "back the way you came. There's nothing but ships up ahead."
Munoz sighed. "I am here to take passage on one of those ships. I am appointed Inquisitor of the expedition of Diego Velazquez that is soon to set sail to the New Lands..."
"By which you must mean the expedition of Hernando Cortes."
"No. It is the expedition of Diego de Velazquez, Governor of this island... He it was who conceived of it, financed it, supplied the ships. Cortes is merely its captain. A hired hand."
The man on the horse gave Munoz a cold smile. "You will find," he said, "that I am much more than a hired hand."He took off his hat, swept it down in a salute: "Hernando Cortes at your service. Velazquez sent me word to expect you. I've set aside a cabin for you on my flagship."
"Then you must have known all along who I am!"An angry grimace crossed Munoz's face as the implications dawned. "You've been playing me for a fool, sir."
"I've been learning about you Father..."
"And what have you learned?"
"That you are Velazquez' man. It's something I will think on."
"Aren't we all Velazquez men?"
"We're all the King's men and his loyal subjects, Father." Cortes looked down at Pepillo and winked, his mismatched eyes giving him an oddly quirky and cheerful look. "Pass me those bags," he said. He indicated hooks hanging from both sides of his saddle.
Pepillo swung towards Munoz, seeking permission, but the Dominican said loudly "No!" There was an edge of something like panic in his voice.
"Nonsense!" said Cortes as he spurred his horse round Munoz, kicking up a cloud of dust, stooped down low to snatch the two bags and secured them to his saddle. "My manservant Melchior will have these waiting for your page to collect when you come on board," he told the friar. He touched the spurs to his horse's sides again and galloped towards the pier where, in the distance, the Santa Mara de la Conception was still loading.
"But ... but ... but ..." Pepillo opened and closed his mouth, feeling shocked, not sure what to expect next.
Munoz turned towards him with a terrible blank stare.
Set out below is the last of the four sample chapters from War God that I am offering free to read here. (The others, presented previously, are Chapters 2, 10 and 14). My purpose is to enable you to make up your own mind, on the basis of actual content, as to whether my novel has any merit or not. This sample chapter, Chapter 12, brings together two key characters from the novel, Shikotenka, battle king of Tlascala, an independent native American state that fought Aztec (Mexica) tyranny with great courage for many years, and Guatemoc a prince of the Mexica royal family. Shikotenka has been spying on a huge Mexica army that is about to raid Tlascalan towns and villages to capture victims for human sacrifice, but Guatemoc has found his hiding place and challenged him to single combat.
When Shikotenka propelled himself out of the crevice he was ready for anything, his knife back in his hand and a snarl on his lips. To be sure, it had been agreed this was to be a matter of honour between knights but he still half expected to be bludgeoned into unconsciousness. He'd long since learned the bitter lesson that any treachery was possible when dealing with the Mexica.
But Guatemoc hadn't betrayed him. Draped in a shimmering cloak of turquoise cotinga feathers, the prince was strolling up the hill and singing, passably enough if somewhat out of tune, the lyrics of I Say This.
The song was well chosen. As famous amongst the Mexica as it was amongst the Tlascalans, it had been composed by Shikotenka's ancient father Shikotenka the Elder and it contained an embarrassing reference to Shikotenka himself which Guatemoc now recited: "My young son, you leader of men, a precious creature."
Guatemoc looked back over his shoulder and gave Shikotenka a mocking smile. "Behold," he said, "the precious creature has emerged from its burrow. Creep in my tracks if you wish, oh leader of men, the long grass will hide you."
Guatemoc was a head taller than Shikotenka, broader in the shoulder, heavier through the body and about five years younger, perhaps twenty-seven to Shikotenka's thirty-three. He wore a mahogany helmet, painted gold, in the form of an eagle's head. The jutting beak framed his handsome face which was also eagle-like with a hooked nose and cruel mouth and bright, predatory eyes. His black hair tumbled down over his shoulders from beneath his helmet. In his right hand, held loosely, almost carelessly, was a long spear with a leaf-shaped obsidian blade. Strapped to his back, lodged inside a leather scabbard with only its handle protruding above the collar of his cloak, was his macuahuitl, the obdsidian-edged broadsword used both by Mexica and Tlascalan knights as their primary battle weapon. Shikotenka had come here to spy, not to fight, and for that reason was without his sword, but he didn't worry unduly about the imbalance. The macuahuitl was an instrument for killing and dismembering opponents. If Guatemoc opted to use it he would be unlikely to end the fight with a live prisoner to offer to Hummingbird.
Shikotenka put his knife back between his teeth again and snaked silently on his belly through the tall, feathery grass that covered much of the hillside. It was a manoeuvre he had practised in a thousand training sessions so it was an easy matter to circle past the Mexica prince and get ahead of him
When Guatemoc reached the hollow, Shikotenka was already there.
"I'm not going to ask you how you did that," said Guatemoc. He stood at the edge of the grassy circle in the bottom of the hollow, ten paces from Shikotenka
"Put it down to my superior military training."
"If Tlascalan military training is in any way superior then why do we Mexica so often defeat you in battle?"
"I'd say it's because you breed like rabbits and outnumber us ten to one," said Shikotenka. "On the rare occasions when it's a fair fight with equal numbers we Tlascalans always win."
Guatemoc smiled but there was no humour in it. "I see one Mexica and one Tlascalan here," he said, "so let's put your theory to the test." He removed his helmet and placed it on the ground, set down his spear and cast off his shimmering turquoise cloak. As well as his great advantage of height Guatemoc had the broad, muscular chest, narrow waist and powerful sculpted legs of an athlete. He wore no armour, only a simple white loincloth and battle sandals. "We're even dressed the same," he observed. "What could be fairer than that?"
"You still have your macuahuitl," Shikotenka pointed out.
"Ah yes. Of course." Guatemoc shook off the leather shoulder straps that held the scabbard to his back and laid the weapon down on the grass. In the same smooth movement he snatched a long double-edged flint dagger from its sheath at his waist. "Knife to knife then," he said.
"Knife to knife," said Shikotenka. He raised his own double-edged blade in a mock salute. "But will you tell me something first?" he asked. "Something I'm curious about..."
"By all means..."
"How did you find me? I chose that crevice carefully. I was well hidden inside it. You shouldn't have been able to see me there..."
"Do you have a sweetheart?" Guatemoc asked.
"What?" said Shikotenka. He couldn't understand the sudden change of subject.
"A sweetheart. Do you have one?"
"You're talking about a woman?"
"Yes. Or a man if you're that way inclined. A sweetheart. Someone who loves you."
"Well yes. I do..."
Shikotenka laughed: "Girl."
"And her name?"
"Beautiful name. She's the one that gave you to me..."
Shikotenka perceived an insult and his blood instantly boiled but Guatemoc held up an appeasing hand: "Don't worry, that's not what I mean!"
"What do you mean?"
"I'm picturing a tender moment. After a night of passion Shikotenka and Zilonen are saying their goodbyes. Shikotenka is a daring sort of fellow and he's off on a dangerous mission to spy on the Mexica. Zilonen says 'wear this charm for me my love' and gives him a silver amulet she has worn since childhood. She weaves it into Shikotenka's hair... 'It will keep you safe'," she says.
Shikotenka's hand went to his long braided hair. He'd forgotten about the little amulet, but it was still there, still intact, still shiny, exactly where his wife Zilonen had placed it. He'd been a fool not to remove it immediately but he'd felt sentimental about it. Now he saw how it had put his life in danger. "It was reflecting the sunlight," he said.
"Like a signal."
"Really elementary mistake on my part," admitted Shikotenka.
"That's how I found you," said Guatemoc. And while he was still speaking, giving no hint or warning of his intent, without even a change of facial expression, he launched himself at Shikotenka across the ten paces that separated them, his dagger gripped point-down in his right fist, its long blade hissing through the air in a blur of criss-crossing diagonal slashes.
Shikotenka was unimpressed. He'd survived enough knife fights to know that speed, strength and technique were all very well but what really counted was having the sheer malicious will to do as much harm as possible to your enemy. By all accounts Guatemoc was brave and cruel in battle but Shikotenka knew there were limits to the damage he would want to do today when his overriding concern must be to win honour by bringing in a high-ranking living captive for sacrifice.
Shikotenka had no such distractions. He would not take Guatemoc prisoner. His only interest, the entire focus of his will, was to kill him now, quickly and silently, and continue with his mission. So he weaved and ducked before the furious assault, keeping his own knife hand back, blocking and parrying with his left, not yet committing himself to a counterattack, waiting for the right moment.
"It must be difficult for you," he said conversationally as they circled.
Guatemoc blinked: "Difficult? What?"
"To be the most accomplished warrior in Coaxoch's army and yet see his windbag sons raised above you as regiment generals."
"They're welcome to the job," laughed Guatemoc. "I fight for honour not position, and I take my orders only from our Speaker."
"Oh yes, of course, your uncle! But tell me, as a brave Mexica how can you possibly endure the leadership of that stuffed tunic? Why even Coaxoch is a better man than him!"
"Moctezuma is the greatest Speaker ever to lead the Mexica nation."
"Come off it Guatemoc! You don't really believe that do you? The man's an arse. I know he's an arse. You know he's an arse. Why not just admit it?"
"He's a great man."
"He's an arse. He's going to put you all in the shit if you don't get rid of him soon. That's what arses do."
"I'll not hear your filthy insults against my Speaker!" Guatemoc feinted as though about to strike upward and predictably stabbed down aiming to disable Shikotenka with a wound to the thigh.
Shikotenka danced away from the blade. "Perhaps the rumour about the Lady Achautli is true?" he suggested. He made the face of a man who has tasted something sour. "It would explain your insane loyalty."
"You dare speak of my mother!"
"Not I Guatemoc, not I, but every gossip on every street corner, every merchant, every fruit-seller, every masturbating schoolboy speaks of your mother - and of your mother's loins ..."
A thunderous look had settled over Guatemoc's brow. "You go too far!" he warned.
"Apparently those loins of hers were famously loose..."
"TOO FAR!" Guatemoc roared and lashed out with his knife - a curling right hook that whistled past Shikotenka's neck, missing him by the breadth of a finger.
Shikotenka danced away another few paces. He could feel the joy of battle rising in him. "Apparently," he said, "the Lady Achautli wasn't just bedding your father Cuitlahauc - that poor cuckold! - when you were conceived. The hot little hussy was also bedding his brother Moctezuma. Five times a day I'm told, when she could get it. So no wonder you're loyal to him! He's not just your uncle he's your father as well!"
As Guatemoc charged, making strangled, choking sounds, drawing his dagger up into a brutal overhead strike, time seemed to slow for Shikotenka and muscle memory from many battles took over. He slid his left foot forward, punched his blade into his opponent's exposed flank, scraped it across his ribs and swung it up to parry his strike.
The knives clashed and locked a span above Shikotenka's head and the two men strained against each other, muscles knotted, grunting like animals. Shikotenka found himself close enough to Guatemoc to see the mad cruel Mexica arrogance in his eyes and smell the distinctive metallic reek of human blood on his breath. Which of my brothers? he thought. Which of my sisters?
Knife fighting was all about deception so Shikotenka allowed Guatemoc to use his superior height and weight to bear down on the fulcrum of the two blades, wanting him to focus his mind there. He waited ... waited ... until he felt the point of balance shift, then abruptly swept his own blade clear, letting the big man's momentum carry him forward and down. Guatemoc rolled as he hit the ground, bounded back to his feet and came circling in again, but he was slower than before, blood was streaming from the wound in his side and he seemed to notice the injury for the first time.
Did he still seriously imagine he was going to take a captive here?
Guatemoc lunged and Shikotenka blocked, slid his left leg forward, trapped Guatemoc's right knee behind his left knee, sliced the blade of his knife thrice through the soft flesh of Guatemoc's right forearm to disable his knife hand and in a flurry of activity stabbed him in the chest and throat five times in rapid succession -- Tac! Tac! Tac! Tac! Tac!
In an instant the bottom of the hollow had become a butcher's shambles and Guatemoc was on his back on the grass.
A bright bubble of blood at the corner of his mouth, the faint rise and fall of his chest and the pulse of the big artery in his neck - miraculously still intact - were evidence that life still clung to his body.
Shikotenka stooped, knife in hand, whispering a brief prayer of gratitude that his enemy's heart still beat. Ilamatecuhtli, aged goddess of the earth and death required no temple or idol and would surely be pleased to receive such an exalted offering.
True the victim was no longer in perfect physical condition...
But while he lived he could be sacrificed!
Like the helpless Tlascalans sacrificed this morning. The smell of their blood still lingered on Guatemoc's failing breath.
Cold implacable rage seized Shikotenka as he remembered the slaughter and his impotence as he witnessed it. He positioned himself to split the prince's breastbone, raised his knife and was about to make the first deep incision when a wet, choking rattle rose in Guatemoc's throat, a great convulsion shook his body and his heels drummed out a furious tattoo on the ground. Blood spewed from his mouth and with a final hideous groan his breathing ceased, the pulse of the artery in his neck slowed and stopped and the spirit left him.
Unbelievable! Even in defeat the strutting Mexica had found a way to escape the rightful vengeance of Tlascala! It would have been justice to tear his palpitating heart from his chest but now it was too late.
One could not meaningfully sacrifice the dead.
Keeping his knife in his fist, Shikotenka dropped to his haunches while he decided what to do. The thought occurred to him that he might cut out Guatemoc's heart anyway and leave it on the grass beside his corpse. It would send a potent message to Moctezuma of Tlascalan contempt. There was a risk the body would be found in the coming hours, putting the Mexica army on high alert with potentially disastrous consequences for tonight's raid, but that risk would be there whatever Shikotenka did. With so much blood about already it would be pointless to try to hide the body, so he might as well have the pleasure of inflicting this final humiliation upon it.
Again he raised his knife, and again lowered it.
The problem was he found no pleasure at all at the prospect of further humiliating Guatemoc.
Quite the opposite.
As he looked down at the still, broken corpse of the prince, his handsome face peaceful and almost boyish in death, Shikotenka realised that what he felt was ...
This could be my brother.
This could be my friend.
To be sure, Guatemoc was Mexica, and of the family of the hated Speaker. That was his birth. That was his fate. But he had also shown courage, chivalry, intelligence and ingenuity and had been, in his own way, amusing.
He'd not been as good a knife fighter as he'd imagined though.
With a grunt of displeasure Shikotenka stood, cast around and snatched up Guatemoc's macuahuitl from where it lay nearby. He strapped it to his back, strode to the rim of the hollow, dropped on his belly and began to crawl furiously through the long grass towards the top of the hill a few bowshots above.
Dust filled his nostrils as he snaked upward. He passed through further hollows and gullies that hid him completely from view, but there were other stretches where the cover was thin and he felt dangerously exposed.
Shikotenka risked a glance back as he reached the summit and saw nothing to suggest he'd been detected by the Mexica army below. He crawled a few body-lengths down the other side of the hill to be sure he was out of sight, then stood and broke into a run. Soon he settled into the loping long-distance stride that would carry him effortlessly over the ten miles of rough country to the forest where his squad lay hidden.
His spirits soared.
If things had gone according to plan he would have waited until nightfall to do this run, hidden by darkness from Mexica scouting parties
But war was the art of improvisation.