Sample Chapters for War God: Return of the Plumed Serpent

I'm making available below, free to read online, the full text of Chapter 12 of my new novel, "War God: Return of the Plumed Serpent". In this chapter, Pepillo, page to the conquistador Hernan Cortés, has been kidnapped by a group of Tlascalan warriors led by their king Shikotenka. Pepillo's dog (named Melchior after his best friend lost in battle some months before), and the swordsman Pedro Alvarado, a cold-hearted killer -- but never faulted for his bravery -- come to the rescue.

Warning -- all of the conquistadors were habitually racist, and that state of mind is reflected in Alvarado's thoughts about the men he confronts. My job as an author is to tell it as it was, not tidy things up for the sake of political correctness.

Note -- the word tuele means "god". There was a suspicion amongst the Mexica and the Tlascalans that the Spaniards were gods.


By Graham Hancock

Chapter 12

 This was what terror felt like. He had known it before when he had nearly been washed overboard during the great storm that scattered the fleet on the night they’d set sail from Cuba. And he’d known it again when he lay hogtied on the forest floor on the island of Cozumel while Father Muñoz strode back and forth, ranting and mad. But tonight, terror had reached a new peak for Pepillo, when his moments of quiet reflection overlooking the ocean had been suddenly cut short by a muscular Indian who’d thrown him onto his back while another had clamped his mouth shut, stifling his cries of alarm, and his nostrils were filled with the musky, alien smell of his attackers and they had dragged him off through the dunes and down onto the smooth, hard sand of the beach, lifting him bodily when he lost his footing, spiriting him away, he knew not where or why, at tremendous speed.

He guessed there might be four of them, or five; in the rush and the confusion he could not be sure. They spoke little amongst themselves, but when they did he thought he recognised snatches of their words. Their language was the same Nahuatl that Malinal had begun to teach him, or something very like it, yet these rough men seemed wilder, more savage by far than the semi-civilised and officious Mexica whom Pepillo had grown used to seeing around the camp, and he feared he was about to be murdered. ‘Let me go,’ he tried to say. ‘What have I done to you?’  His words were Spanish, and of course they would not understand, but even if by some miracle his abductors spoke the King’s own Castilian, that massive, uncompromising hand clamped across his mouth prevented him from uttering anything more than stifled grunts and sobs.

His feet slipped from under him and he was lifted bodily again, his head almost wrenched from his shoulders, when there came a snarl, menacing and low, and his pup Melchior launched himself out of the darkness, a missile of fur and teeth and fury, and seized that clamping, stifling hand and tore it loose in an instant, extracting a bellow of pure horror from its owner and allowing Pepillo to shout at the top of his voice: ‘Help! For God’s sake, help!’ In the same instant, Melchior let go the hand and dropped back to the beach, sinking his teeth into one of the attacker’s ankles. There came another shriek and suddenly Pepillo was free, stumbling over his own knees, then rising and running and shouting again and again: ‘Help! For God’s sake, help!’ The breeze was still blowing, carrying his cries away from the camp, which now lay hundreds of paces to the south, so there was little chance he would be heard, but it was his only hope.

As Alvarado strolled down from the dunes towards the beach, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stir – something was amiss here – and his hand fell to the hilt of his rapier. He had long since learned to trust his instincts, but at first he wasn’t sure what it was that troubled him except perhaps a sense of motion, of agitation – and that not very far away.  Then he heard a dog snarl and a yell of surprise followed by a boy’s voice, high-pitched and terrified, shouting ‘Help! For God’s sake, help!

Alvarado drew his steel and broke into a run. In seconds he had reached level sand. Directly ahead of him, not fifty paces distant and dimly lit by the crescent moon, he made out a scrum of figures – Indians, by the look of them, naked but for breechclouts and feathers. Closing he saw a small figure break free, heard again that high-pitched plea for help and now recognised the boy Pepillo, Cortés’s own page, running and stumbling away, still calling for aid and seemingly unaware that his wish had been granted. The boy was followed by two of his attackers, while the other three seemed fully preoccupied with the furious dog, no more than a pup, that was amongst them, snarling and snapping its teeth, and clearly doing some harm.

Alvarado changed direction, put on a burst of speed, and came up with the boy just as one of the filthy savages, streaking after him, reached to grab him. ‘Not so fast, my lovely,’ Alvarado said, striking down on a dusky arm with the edge of the rapier and feeling the satisfying resistance of human flesh. ‘Pick on someone your own size, why don’t you?’ The second heathen came at him with a hideous yell, wielding one of those crude wooden paddles edged with blades of obsidian that the Indians used as swords. Alvarado parried, but the rapier lodged with a clunk deep in the wood of the other man’s weapon; for a moment he could not pull it free, and suddenly he was surrounded by a press of stinking Indians thrusting at him with their primitive stone knives. Just as well, he’d buckled on his cuirass this evening! He felt the blades break and turn on his armour, ducked to avoid a huge club that came whistling at his head, drew his own dagger of Toledo steel, plunged it into a leg here, a torso there, and was rewarded with cries of pain and a sudden drawing back of the men around him. In the same instant, with a twist and a jerk, he pulled his rapier free and dropped into the guard position fencers call the plough, holding the slim blade out before him, hilt down close to his centre of gravity, point up, turning through three hundred and sixty degrees to see where the next threat was coming from.

He glanced at Pepillo. The boy was still with him, still alive. ‘You’re doing good, lad,’ he said, ‘but I want you to run now. Run back to camp. Yell at the top of your voice all the way. Get us help. I’ll keep these bastards busy.’

‘No, sir. With respect, sir. I don’t see my dog.’

‘Bugger your dog, lad. Dog’ll look after himself. Get running, unless you want us both to end up in the cooking pot.’

‘Very well, sir. As you say, sir … ’

But it was already too late. Their attackers had formed a rough circle around them and there was no way the boy was going to make it through. Alvarado laid a gloved hand on his shoulder. ‘Change of plan,’ he said. ‘Stay close. Watch my back. It’s hard to credit but it looks like these Indians know how to fight.’ He raised his voice. ‘Come on, you godless barbarians. Have at me if you dare.’

Shikotenka was beginning to wonder whether the white-skinned, bearded, golden-haired man confronting them might after all be some kind of tuele. With odds of five to one, the five being without a doubt the flower of Tlascalan warriors, their opponent should be lying, bleeding his last, in the sand by now. Instead he was standing there taunting them, apparently uninjured and protecting the boy they’d snatched. The boy was human, no doubt about that, but this man, if he was a man, seemed possessed of supernatural powers. Shikotenka had aimed a thrust straight at his heart – a good thrust, a true thrust – and yet his war knife had been turned by the stranger’s metal armour.

Surely some witchcraft must be at work here, some sorcery – for while the white-skin was as yet untouched, Chipahua had taken a deep wound to the muscle of his right forearm, forcing him to switch his macuahuitl to his left hand, Tree had been stabbed through the thigh, and Ilhuicamina between the ribs.

And what was that monstrous animal that had come at them and then disappeared? Shikotenka looked down at his own ankle, bleeding copiously where its fangs had slashed him. Was it some species of wolf that the white-skins had enchanted to their service? And where was it now? He hoped it had not gone to fetch others of its kind.

He looked around at his crew, closing in for the kill. All were still in the fight and none were complaining, but they were losing blood and time. Only Acolmiztli remained completely uninjured. ‘I can take him,’ he hissed. ‘Give me my chance, Shikotenka. Great honour in it for me when I bring this one down.’

‘Shit on honour,’ growled Tree. ‘I say we all just rush him, club him into the ground … ’

But Acolmiztli wasn’t listening. Raising his macuahuitl in a two-handed grip, he uttered a shrill battle cry and darted forward.

With a roar, Tree followed him.

Signalling Chipahua and Ilhuicamina to stay back – their injuries made them liabilities in a fight with an opponent as skilled as this – Shikotenka circled silently out into the darkness, aiming to get behind the white-skin. 

Deep in a claustrophobic dream in which a fiend hunted her through narrow corridors and passageways, Malinal heard the sound of whining and scratching at the door of the wooden hut she shared with Puertocarrero. She was immediately wide awake, her mind working fast, sensing trouble. She leapt out from the bed, ran naked to the door and opened it to find Pepillo’s dog Melchior standing there shivering, covered in blood. The moment it saw her it turned and ran off a few paces, then turned back, looked at her and barked.

Malinal had no doubt what this meant. Pepillo must be in some terrible danger. ‘Puertocarrero!’ she yelled, ‘wake up!’ She realised she’d spoken the words in Castilian, even as she dashed back to the bed, pulled off the sheets and gave the hairy slumbering figure a shove. No reaction! She was already pulling on a tunic and slipping into her moccasins; moments later, with a final shriek at Puertocarrero, she ran out into the night, heading for Cortés’s nearby pavilion. Melchior followed at her heels.

The guards were asleep in the portico and Malinal barged past them without a second thought. ‘Caudillo,’ she shouted, ‘be awake. Trouble. Danger.’ At once Cortés sat up in the bed, the dim light of the candles revealing a chubby Totonac girl by his side. Malinal felt an instant stab of jealousy – that should be her place! – but ignored it. ‘Caudillo! Caudillo! Come quick. Pepillo! Great danger!’ Melchior scurried around her feet, barking, and Cortés at once jumped up, his tepulli half-engorged, swinging from side to side, his ahuacatl large and heavy. Hastily he donned a pair of breeches, boots, and strapped on his sword. He asked no questions, just charged outside, slapping the guards about the head. Within seconds there were a dozen men around him, all armed, some holding blazing firebrands, and they streamed down across the dunes towards the beach after Melchior, Cortés calling over his shoulder: ‘Vendabal! Follow with the dogs!’

As the two Indians charged towards him, one small and wiry, the other massive and heavily muscled with a tangle of wild hair, time seemed to slow, as it often did in battle, and Alvarado had a moment to wish he’d brought his heavy falchion with him this night rather than the slim and elegant rapier now gripped in his right hand. The rapier was a fine weapon to be sure, the work of the great swordsmith Andrés Nuñez of Toledo, but it was not well suited to a fight with savages. The way it had become trapped in the first scuffle for example. Not good! Not good at all! He’d have to make damn sure that didn’t happen again or they might yet get the better of him. If he’d had the falchion it would have broken that wooden sword in half, leaving him free to carve its owner into mincemeat, but – well – he didn’t have the falchion, so he’d just have to make the best of a bad job.

The first man swung at him, another of those infernal wooden swords, but since the blow was aimed at his chest where his cuirass protected him, he allowed it through, feeling the obsidian blades shatter harmlessly. He spun sideways and let the Indian’s own momentum carry him past, dodged left to avoid a whistling blow from the other attacker’s huge club, shoved Pepillo roughly out of the way, fell into a stance, his right knee flexed, his left leg and left arm extended almost straight behind him, and executed a rapid powerful lunge, the long blade of the rapier thrust out ahead, its needle point seeking, questing for flesh to pierce, for vital organs to puncture.

But the wiry little Indian with the sword was fast – damned good, in fact! – and swivelled to avoid the strike, backhanding a second useless blow into Alvarado’s cuirass even as the other came in yelling, whirling that monstrous club. They thought they had him now – Alvarado could see it in the triumphant glint of their eyes – but he was an accomplished athlete; he threw himself into a backflip, a technique that had saved his life more than once in battle, landed poised on the balls of his feet and went at once into the counterattack, slashing the razor edge of the dagger in his left hand across the face of the Indian with the club, tearing loose a great flap of skin, then leaping high into the air and – Yes! Yes! – perfectly skewering the other man. The point of the rapier slid in just below the savage’s Adam’s apple and emerged from his lower back, doing terrible damage along the way. Alvarado had already whipped the blade out before his feet hit the ground and, as the giant Indian with the club came at him again, he struck him through the belly, not centre mass as he would have preferred, but somewhat to one side, a blow that would not be immediately fatal but that would surely slow him down.

The smaller of the two attackers had already collapsed to his knees, making the choking, gurgling sounds of a man drowning in his own blood, and Alvarado was about to deliver the coup de grâce to the giant when he was shocked to discover his sword arm seized in a powerful grip and the rapier snatched from his grasp. Where the hell was the boy Pepillo, who should have warned him of this, he thought furiously, even as he switched his dagger to his right hand and swung to face his new assailant.

Creeping up on the boy was easy. He didn’t make a sound when Shikotenka smashed his fist into the side of his head, laid him out flat, and rushed forward to grab the golden-haired warrior’s sword arm just in time to stop him killing Tree. With the advantage of surprise, Shikotenka wrestled the strange metal weapon from his hand but, not being practised in its use, he cast it down and faced the white-skin knife to knife. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Tree advancing, bleeding mightily from face, thigh and side, while Ilhuicamina and Chipahua also edged closer. ‘Stay back!’ Shikotenka commanded. ‘He’s mine.’ 

Everything about the white-skin’s stance, the calm, steady glare of his pale eyes, the relaxed way he moved, light on his feet, poised, deadly, told Shikotenka that he confronted a practised knife-fighter, a slayer just like himself. This was not going to be easy, and what made it even more difficult was the silver armour that sheathed the other man’s torso. Pointless to attempt another thrust for the heart. Shikotenka knew that if he were to kill this enemy, he would have to strike home to his unprotected legs, or throat or head, while he himself would remain vulnerable to a body blow throughout the contest.

They were still circling – each looking for an opening in the other’s defence, knives lashing out, probing, neither yet committing to a full attack – when Shikotenka saw something that made his blood run cold: a line of men holding blazing torches aloft, running full tilt towards them along the beach from the direction of the camp. Behind them, further back, was a shadowy mass of other figures, and from their midst arose the horrible baying of the white-skins’ wolves.

Shikotenka made an immediate decision. Although it was dishonourable, Acolmiztli’s corpse would have to be left behind. He did not know how fast the war animals of the white-skins could run, but Tlascalans – even injured! – were the fastest runners in the world, and the wind would carry their scent away from the beasts, not towards them.

He issued the order, broke off the fight, nodded to his opponent and said: ‘This isn’t over, white-skin. We’ll meet again.’ Then he turned and ran. Glancing back he saw the man’s golden hair gleaming in the moonlight and heard him call out in his foreign tongue. The words themselves meant nothing to him, but their tone of mockery was unmistakable and the skin of Shikotenka’s face grew hot with shame.

"WAR GOD: RETURN OF THE PLUMED SERPENT" is published on 9 October in the US and the UK and on 9 December in Canada. Your support for my work as a writer both of fiction and non-fiction means a lot to me. It will help to get the book noticed, and make a great difference to its long-term prospects, if you would pre-order now, through the links below. My understanding is that Amazon don't actually charge you for the pre-order until they despatch your copy of the book to you, and that if their price is lower at the time of publication than it is now you will be charged the lower price.

War God II: Return of the Plumed Serpent (Volume II)

Volume 1 of the series, "War God: Nights of the Witch", was published in 2013. Various purchase links (Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA) and background materials are available on this page: Also on this page:

I'm making available below, free to read online, an extract from Chapter 28 of my new novel, "War God: Return of the Plumed Serpent". In this extract, the Mexica Emperor Moctezuma, believing himself protected by warding spells cast by his sorcerer Acopol, overcomes his fears of being magically attacked and ventures out from the safety of his palace to officiate at the festival of Tecuilhitl held each year amongst the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan. The festival is supposed to culminate in mass acts of human sacrifice but the witch Tozi, the heroine of my story, aims to disrupt the ceremony. She has the power to make herself invisible and stalks Moctezuma awaiting her moment of vengeance.


By Graham Hancock

Chapter 28

His confidence grew. He was relieved that no magical attack had been attempted on his person. Acopol’s warding spells were clearly so powerful that they protected him even here. Moctezuma yawned, licked his lips and handed the empty goblet to a retainer. The time was approaching when, as age-old tradition demanded, he must mingle with the public. Normally it was forbidden for any mere mortal to have contact with him, who was so close to the gods, but today,Tecuilhuitl, that taboo was lifted for the single hour before noon. Teudile stood ready with the basket of cacao beans and silver trinkets that the Great Speaker would distribute as gifts; after that was done, he must perform the ritualised slow-stepping dance of the star-demons in a special costume of green quetzal and red parrot feathers before the sacrifices could begin.

Dismissing the little shadow of apprehension that lingered at the back of his mind, despite his attempts to reassure himself, Moctezuma stepped out into the sunlight and walked with dignified steps, Cuitláhuac at his right, Teudile at his left clutching the basket, across the boundary of cleared space that separated him from the masses. A hundred soldiers specially selected for their intimidating size had already surged forward into the crowd, opening a lane through which Moctezuma could pass and yes – ghastly thought! – the paupers would be permitted to reach between the guards to touch the Great Speaker’s garments, his hands, and even his gold-slippered feet. He shivered in disgust and progressed into the armed gauntlet. As he did so, complete silence fell. This was partly a matter of custom – silence had always been required at this moment – but it was partly, also, because the people pressing in all around were utterly, unspeakably terrified.

As well they might be, Moctezuma thought. As well they might be. After all, a veritable god walked amongst them, who could order the death of any or all of them with a single, simple word, who could require them to cut their own throats right here, right now, who could command that their children’s brains be dashed out, or wrest their wives or their husbands from them at his whim, without any recourse on their part.

Uggh … His flesh crept at the stinking smell that invaded his nostrils as thickets of filthy hands stretched out towards him, past the guards, grubby fingers clutching his robes, caressing his hands and arms. Others snaked out at ground level in order to reach his feet. And all these unwashed limbs and digits that so urgently sought for him belonged to people – his people! – who fervently believed that this fleeting connection would cure their ills, bring them wealth, make them fertile and fulfil whatever other hopes and dreams sustained them in their short, ugly, meaningless lives.

Moctezuma was now twenty, now thirty, paces into the throng. The guards were having some difficulty keeping the crowd back. Better get on with it! He reached into the basket that Teudile carried, scooped up beans and silver jewels and began to pass them out, now to the left, now to the right, revolted at the massed hands that took them from him like so many hungry, grasping mouths.

That was when, suddenly, in the space the soldiers had opened directly in front of him, and so close that it seemed to emanate from a place no more than a pace away, a woman’s voice spoke up through the silence, very high and very clear in the ringing tones of a proclamationBehold, Moctezuma,’ the voice trumpeted, ‘the last days of your world are upon you and very soon you will be dead, crushed under the foot of the god Quetzalcoatl, but not before you have been punished for your crimes … 

There came a massed gasp of shock and horror and whispers began to spread, passing the astounding words that had been spoken from person to person back into the furthest reaches of the crowd where they had not been heard. For his part Moctezuma stopped in his tracks, his jaw hanging open, stunned, surprised beyond measure by this unexpected and unprecedented voice which now continued: ‘Repent, Great Speaker, for the vengeance of the god will be great and mighty upon you; give up your evil ways, make recompense to your people and to all those of other nations who have suffered at your hands.

Again there was that susurrating whisper of rumour as the words were repeated and passed on, rippling through the crowd at incredible speed while the guards cast about wildly, their macuahuitls drawn, pushing people aside, searching for someone – anyone – to arrest. Several women were grabbed, a man shouted hoarsely and was struck down by a savage blow, and hundreds more soldiers from the security battalion came rushing out, shouting, stamping their feet, striking their macuahuitls against their shields in an attempt to quell the swelling riot. Meanwhile, Moctezuma, Cuitláhuac and Teudile had been encircled by a dozen Cuahchics who hacked indiscriminately at the rabble around them. A head rolled, an arm flew through the air spouting blood and, amid the chaos, that voice again, that terrible haunting voice somehow rose above the sea of sound, incredibly close yet with no obvious source: ‘Oh foolish and cowardly Moctezuma, you are undone; your wickedness has caught you out and the reckoning has come to you sooner than you imagined. Abandon today’s sacrifices! Forswear them or you will pay the price.’

‘Never!’ Moctezuma yelled. It was the charge of cowardice that got to him, and he could not restrain himself from responding even as the bodyguards rushed him, Cuitláhuac and Teudile into a tight group, pushing them through the screaming masses and back behind the cordon of troops protecting the pavilion. At the last moment Moctezuma turned and shook his fist impotently at the throng, only to feel a sudden inexplicable stab of pain. He looked down and saw that a gaping wound from which the royal blood gushed forth like a river had opened between his great and his first toe, slicing up from there towards the arch of his foot. ‘Witchcraft!’ he yelled – for at the moment he was struck, no one had been standing close enough to him to inflict this wound – ‘Witchcraft!’ He staggered and, as Cuitláhuac rushed to support him, he fell in a dead faint.

Well, thought Tozi, that was a good start. She was grimly pleased with herself, especially because she had managed to stab the Great Speaker – not fatally; she did not want to kill him; she had long ago been persuaded by Huicton’s arguments about the merits of keeping him alive and using his own folly and weakness of character to undermine Mexica power, rather than getting him out of the way and making room for a stronger man to take the throne. To inflict that rather nasty injury on the royal foot, she had of course been obliged to allow her right arm and her hand holding the flint knife to materialise for an instant from the field of invisibility with which she had surrounded herself, a risky manoeuvre because of the possibility of detection; but she had done it so fast she’d got away with it. Now, with cries of ‘witchcraft’ going up all round, Cuitláhuac and Teudile leaping here and there like headless toads, armed guards storming back and forth, Moctezuma flat on his back, unconscious and bleeding from an inexplicable stab wound, and the huge crowd on the verge of a full-scale riot, she had every reason to hope that matters might spiral completely out of control.

In the event, however, and within the hour, Mexica discipline and the judicious use of terror contained the crisis. Not a single member of the crowd was allowed to leave. After recovering from his faint, Moctezuma was patched up – weeping like a baby – by the royal physician. And Teudile announced that theTecuilhuitl sacrifices would go ahead.

Tozi had eavesdropped the conversation between Moctezuma and Cuitlahuauc that had preceded the announcement. Predictably the craven Speaker had wanted to return at once to Tenochtitlan and to his palace – the only place now, he was convinced, that he could be safe from magical attack.

‘No, sire,’ Cuitláhuac had said with surprising firmness. ‘You cannot even contemplate such a course of action. Whatever mysterious force has afflicted us today you must not be seen to give way to it; to do so, I believe, and before so many witnesses, would prove fatal for your rule.’

‘But I cannot,’ Moctezuma had sobbed. ‘I simply cannot, dear brother. See – ’ he pointed at his foot – ‘I am injured. It was a witch who did this to me, the witch Acopol warned me about. If I stay here she will attack again. In my palace, Acopol’s warding spells protect me.’

‘Nevertheless, my lord, you must strengthen your will. The honour of the throne is at stake. Look … ’ Cuitláhuac signalled through the door of the pavilion at the vast, sullen crowd, still waiting, hemmed in by soldiers. ‘Consider what your people must think – must say! – if you leave Teotihuacan now without performing the sacrifices. You will never be able to command them again.’

Finally, after much more of this, Moctezuma was reluctantly persuaded. ‘I’m sure the witch has gone, brother,’ Cuitláhuac said. ‘She would not dare strike twice in the same place.’

We’ll see about that, thought Tozi.

‘There must be no hint of witchcraft being worked against you, great lord,’ Teudile added, ‘and that word is already being bandied about. While the surgeon stitched and bound your foot, I therefore took the liberty of having a man and a woman seized from the crowd. The man I accused of stabbing you and I found witnesses to swear to it. The woman I accused of throwing her voice and I found witnesses to swear she was indeed the one responsible for those utterances. I suggest a summary trial before the public, a guilty verdict pronounced by yourself and then their immediate execution.’

‘You have done well, Teudile,’ Moctezuma said. ‘We will flay them both alive before we begin with the sacrifices.’

We’ll see about that too,’ thought Tozi.

"WAR GOD: RETURN OF THE PLUMED SERPENT" is published on 9 October in the US and the UK and on 9 December in Canada. Your support for my work as a writer both of fiction and non-fiction means a lot to me. It will help to get the book noticed, and make a great difference to its long-term prospects, if you would pre-order now, through the links below. My understanding is that Amazon don't actually charge you for the pre-order until they despatch your copy of the book to you, and that if their price is lower at the time of publication than it is now you will be charged the lower price.

War God II: Return of the Plumed Serpent (Volume II)

Volume 1 of the series, "War God: Nights of the Witch", was published in 2013. Various purchase links (Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA) and background materials are available on this page: Also on this page: