Time Spike: The Mysterious Mesa
The time-twisting Assiti Shards are the distressing consequences of a highly advanced and completely insane alien race’s idea of art. One of the shards has struck in southern Illinois region, thrusting peoples from different historical eras into the middle of one of the most dangerous periods ever known: The Cretaceous!
Lost in a nightmare world, a conquistador from the year 1541 finds a U.S. Cavalry Scout from 1838 hanging helplessly from a snare. The Spaniard frees him, an act of mercy leading to an uneasy alliance. After battling a ‘dragon’ we know as the Tyrannosaurus Rex, they find themselves in the shadows of the Cyclopean pyramids of Cahokia, the greatest city of the forgotten Mississippian civilization.
The Rattlesnake Priests prepare a grisly celebration for their reptilian god, but thanks to the intervention of the Raven Priestess, they escape the city with a pair of Pre-Mound tribesmen who invite the castaways from the future to join them in their beleaguered village.
They find the villagers trying to defend themselves from the giant creatures roaming this primeval land. Thankfully, a new hope can be seen across the vast, dry flats of the Drained Sea—a mysterious mesa rising more than a thousand feet into the sky, another bizarre result of the unnatural disaster Could this be a haven? To find out, the four newfound friends set out on a journey that will prove to be more dangerous than anything they have faced yet!
The Good Samaritan and The Hanged Man
Gonzalo Xoan de Alcantara rode slowly through the peculiar landscape, unlike anything he had seen in the Old World or the New. He and his very unhappy horse were trying to work their way up to higher ground, a range of low hills glimpsed beyond the tangled growth. They were surrounded by swampy forests of towering ferns and what looked like cedar trees, but weren’t. The ground was sticky green mud, hard going for his tired palomino stallion. Even worse, the air itself was sticky; hot, humid, and thick with the stench of rotting vegetation along with other, stranger scents that made his horse snort nervously. Sometimes the long-suffering beast would find something edible enough to nibble at among the odd plants, but Gonzalo could feel its hide had grown taut against its ribs. There just wasn’t any proper grass to be found in this dismal realm. Still, the proud stallion wanted to live, and so it adapted. He knew he would have to adapt too, to learn the ways of this inhospitable country if he wanted to survive.
He often wondered if he might have died without even realizing it. Being a Christian man who had sinned most grievously, Gonzalo thought he must be in purgatory, or perhaps even hell itself: The enormous and terrifying lizards, unnaturally large insects, and other seemingly demonic creatures that roamed these sultry jungles certainly lent credence to the theory. Just the weird cries and calls that echoed through the jungle were enough to make a grown man tremble in fear, the evil cacophony of the devil’s minions. Surely, the Lord was punishing Hernando de Soto and his followers for their cruelty toward man and beast. Gonzalo had grown disgusted with de Soto ‘s inhumanity, and had been making plans to desert his band as they murdered and raped their way deeper into the New World. He had hoped to make his way to Mexico, and enter the priesthood there to atone for his part in de Soto’s evils. Now he doubted he would ever have that chance.
The bizarre event that swept them away to this hellish place had provided the distraction he had needed to make his break. Perhaps de Soto would think him lost in the tumult, perhaps that son of a jackal was on his trail this very moment; it was hard to worry about it much when there were so many other dangers present. Gonzalo kept an open mind. Either he was alive and would continue living until some monstrous beast claimed him, or he was already dead and suffering the Lord’s wrath. Such an inexplicable force could only be an act of God. Whatever had happened, it didn’t really matter now. He was here, wherever here was. He prayed daily for forgiveness for the innocent blood he had spilled and promised to somehow atone for his many sins.
The stallion stepped into a deeper patch of muck and began to struggle. Gonzalo was fond of his exhausted horse and pitied him, so he dismounted, leading him carefully back onto more solid ground. The repentant conquistador trudged on, his boots squelching through the green mud, looking for an exit from the marshy jungle. After a while, he saw a sight that made his heart leap with joy: An opening in the dense wall of vegetation leading out to a sun-drenched, sandy hillside. At last, he and his horse could escape their fetid prison! Soon they stood blinking under the light of the early afternoon sun, their eyes having grown accustomed to the swampy jungle’s green dimness. Much relieved, they walked comfortably across an open area, the ground a mix of coarse sand and pebbles. They were now on an easy path which ran along the feet of a range of low hills bordering the swamplands.
An eerie cry emerged from the vegetation, not far from where they had just exited. Gonzalo quickly determined it would be best to put some distance between themselves and that place lest the horrid creatures within decide to chase them down on open ground. He thought that they had been very lucky to survive their time in that foul-smelling bog. They moved away at a gentle trot, which was as fast as either of them could manage after the day’s long slog. Reaching the bottom of the nearest hill, Gonzalo led his horse upward at a shallow angle, climbing in a northeasterly direction that would eventually bring them to the top of the wall of hills.
It was fairly easy going, and they were quickly nearing the range’s rolling summit. Gonzalo wondered what might lie beyond, praying that it would not be another swampy jungle. He and his horse both breathed deeply, enjoying a gentle breeze out of the north. The air up here was still filled with the heady scents of strange plants, but it was fresher and cooler. Perhaps they weren’t actually in hell after all, but Gonzalo kept a keen eye out for danger anyway. A new landscape usually meant new creatures, and if they were anything like the jungle’s terrifying denizens they would be far larger and more dangerous than anything he had ever beheld in his past travels, dwarfing even the bull elephant that had charged him in Africa. He recalled maps he had seen with chimerical beasts painted along the edges. Everyone knew they were just the artists enjoying a bit of fancy, since they really didn’t know what lay beyond. “Here be monsters!” they always warned. Gonzalo wondered if he would ever have the chance to tell them they had been right.
Coming over the gentle summit, Gonzalo beheld an unexpected sight: A man hanging upside down from a tree limb. The fellow was European, perhaps, although his face was flushed a purplish-red from his uncomfortable position. A rough rope sling wrapped tightly around the left ankle held the man in the air, his head bobbing four feet above the ground. He had been caught in some kind of a snare. A curved sword lay nearby, gleaming in the bright afternoon light. It had apparently slipped free from its scabbard when it was turned upside-down and had landed tantalizingly just out of reach of the hanged man.
Gonzalo’s horse snorted, also surprised by the odd scene. The hanged man’s eyes opened, steel-gray irises and bloated pupils floating in blood-saturated red.
“Please,” the man croaked. “Help me down.” He was speaking English.
It had been a number of years since Gonzalo had used that crude islander tongue, not since his time serving as a guard for the Spanish ambassador in the English court. Cold, rainy, stinking England was now the second worse place he had ever been, his current situation having taken first prize by some small margin. The English were by no means friends, but as a Christian, a true Christian, unlike those sons of goats he had parted ways with, he knew he couldn’t leave the poor fellow to such a slow and painful death. Moreover, this might be a test from God to see if he would be merciful to a potential enemy. After a moment of concentration, the foreign words came back to him. Gonzalo cleared his throat, he had not had cause to use his voice for many long days.
“May I first ask, who are you, sir?” he called out politely. That seemed a reasonable question before freeing the fellow. The hanged man struggled to twist his body around to get a better look at Gonzalo.
“I’m Corporal Nate Tucker, US Army Cavalry scout. This here deer trap got me last night. I don’t think I can take it much longer. Please, I’m begging you, cut me down!”
Gonzalo didn’t quite catch all of that, but he was pretty sure Corporal Nate Tucker claimed he was a soldier in an army, although he was unfamiliar with the rank. Hopefully he would prove to be a true soldier, a man of honor, not a roving butcher as de Soto had been.
Gonzalo carefully tied his horse to a low, thorny branch. Usually the stallion could be trusted not to run off, but even a seasoned and battle-trained mount such as his might lose courage at the approach of a lizard-demon! He carefully scanned the area to make sure there were no further traps. Assured of his own safety, Gonzalo took hold of the soldier’s midriff and lifted him a few inches to take the pressure off. This caused the man to gasp and go limp. Just as well: Gonzalo preferred him to be unconscious for the time being. He used his dagger to cut the hanging rope, then eased his burden to the ground as gently as he could. This was no easy task. The soldier outweighed him by a good forty pounds, a remarkably large and well-fed person.
“Holy Mother of God! You are a heavy one, Corporal Nate Tucker!” Gonzalo swore aloud, hoping the Lord would forgive him for his unfortunate exclamation. He feared that from his current, sinful state he had a long way to go before he could be possibly accepted as a priest, even in the half-pagan churches of the Mexican wilds. Grunting some more, he did his best not to drop his charge on his head, thus adding further injury.
Once he had placed the unconscious man safely on the ground, Gonzalo went to work on the rope still twined tightly around his ankle, being careful not to cut too deep. Luckily, the soldier’s skin was protected by sturdy leather boots, with dark blue trousers made of very heavy cloth tucked into them. A quick glance at the rest of him showed gold buttons on a coat of the same color and firm weave as the trousers. The fine-looking, but functional riding wear of a very successful soldier. Gonzalo was most impressed. He was apparently rescuing a high ranking officer; only a man such as that could afford this kind of quality. Gonzalo began to work the boot off, turning his face up toward the breeze to escape the unpleasant odor emanating from within.
He hoped he was in time. He didn’t relish having to cut a gangrenous foot off. He had seen a surgeon perform that operation after a battle once and knew it to be a grisly task. Gonzalo massaged the calf for a few minutes, then carefully worked his way down to the foot, helping blood to slowly flow back into it. The soldier moaned, and he whispered a quick prayer to the Lord that He be merciful, and keep the poor fellow from waking up just yet. The returning blood would feel like the piercing of a thousand thorns. Now, rubbing the foot gently, he could see a bit of color returning to the ghostly white flesh. The foot reeked due to a long separation from air and clean water, but it was a normal man-stink, not the rancid stench of spoiled flesh. Gonzalo moved the toes around to increase the blood flow to those extremities. He looked up at the too-blue sky and spoke aloud in his native Spanish.
“Am I doing right by this unfortunate placed in my path, dear Lord? If I had any oil I would anoint him with it, as Mary of Bethany did for Your only son. Please, Lord, help this man recover fully from his trial, I, Your willing servant, most humbly pray.”
After a while, Gonzalo could see the foot had returned to a nearly normal color. It would likely be sore and difficult to walk on for a few days, but it was intact. The soldier would not end up a cripple.
“Thank you, Lord, thank you for Your mercy,” Gonzalo whispered, head bowed. When he raised it again he noticed that there was a large object hanging from the soldier’s smooth, black belt. It was a leather pouch containing an odd-looking item. At the top, he could see a pearl handle. As softly as he could, so as not to alert the still groggy soldier, Gonzalo unclasped the holster. He pulled out a long, silvery barrel. His blood began to run a few degrees colder. It looked like some kind of a firearm. Gonzalo thought of the bulky harquebus hanging from his own silver-studded shoulder belt. This thing was smaller, smoother, and, he suspected, deadlier.
Of course, a rich officer would have only the best of pistols, but Gonzalo had never seen one of such quality, even in the royal courts of England and Spain. He gave the soldier an apologetic shrug as he carefully placed the weapon in his own leather storage pouch, just for a while, until he could further gauge the fellow’s mood and intentions. He picked up the fallen saber as well. How that must have been a torture, the means of escape just out of reach! Gonzalo was an excellent swordsman, but there was no sense in taking any chances. Hopefully he could make peace with this soldier from a country he had never heard of.
Gonzalo noticed the shadows growing longer, the light growing thicker. Evening would be coming before too long. All that exercise had left him hot and sticky under his breastplate. Over the past few days he had steadily shed different pieces of his armor, such as the elbow and knee plates that constricted his movement more than he liked. He was storing them in his saddle bags until he decided whether or not to part ways with them. They were heavy, and took a toll on both himself and his horse. It was also possible they might be the only thing that could save him from the terrible bite or raking claws of the nightmarish creatures he had encountered; so far the thundering report of his harquebus had kept those at a distance, but the powder wouldn’t last forever. It was a conundrum. In the end, he thought he would decide on traveling light as his best chance for survival. Once all the ammunition was gone, it would be better to flee the beasts as fast as he could without the armor slowing him down. It will be as the Lord wills!
Gonzalo shook his head in dismay. Now he had another neck to look after. For the moment, Corporal Nate Tucker was lying in the shade of the thorny tree that had been his prison, sleeping soundly. Another mercy of God. He placed one of his water skins near the soldier so he could find it easily upon awakening.
After scouting around a bit, Gonzalo decided that right where they were was as good a place as any to make camp. The sparse trees were gnarled, thorny things, with thick, stubby leaves. They looked like something you would find in an arid region, but he had never seen their exact kind in any desert he had visited. The “hanging tree” was near the hill’s top, which afforded them a view all around. To the east Gonzalo could now see a wide region of open spaces, plains and distant mesas, a very different landscape from the swampy jungles behind them. The sight made him smile. This looked more like the world he knew. Perhaps he would find Mexico after all, or some other somewhat civilized region. He gathered fallen branches for a fire. The wood was oily; it would probably burn well. Soon Gonzalo had a sizable blaze going. He began to feel safer. Fire was one of the few things the nightmarish creatures in these lands seemed to fear.
Nate began to stir. He set up slowly and reached for a wide brimmed leather hat that that had fallen nearby. Once that was placed on his head his eyes seemed to come into sharper focus. He nodded to Gonzalo as he rubbed his foot.
“Thank you, sir. You’ve saved my life,” he said in a strong, baritone voice.
Gonzalo bowed his head politely. “It was God’s will that I came along in time. Drink some water,” he told him, pointing to the canteen. The soldier graciously returned the nod, and took a long swig. He paused to get that one down properly, then took another.
“I was sure I was going to die. You sure saved my butt.”
“God is merciful.”
Nate nodded politely, not wanting to offend this obviously religious person. Not yet, anyway. “I reckon He is, seeing as how he sent The Good Samaritan my way.” Nate saw that appellation make his rescuer smile and blush under his deep tan. Bingo, religious. “Still,” he added, “He sure has a funny sense of humor sometimes. Must have to have created a place like this one! I’ve been on the run from horned-toads the size of hills for days now, never seen nuthin’ like it in my life.”
“The dragons. Or demons. Perhaps He is testing us.”
“Mebbe so. Still, I’d like to find my way back to regular country. I don’t s’pose you know the way, do you?”
Gonzalo shook his head sadly. “No sir, I am afraid I am as lost here as you are. I had hoped briefly that perhaps you would know the way.”
“Well, that’s a shame.” Nate took another long swig of the water, his head was still swimming from its time upside-down, but he was beginning to feel better. Nate put the skin down and took a minute to drink in the sight of his rescuer.
Before him was a slender fellow, obviously in top physical condition, muscular, and graceful in his movements. Probably a well-trained fighting man. His face was long and rather sad, the look of a man who had felt many years of melancholy. The nose was prominent and hawkish. His beard and eyebrows were a bushy black over deeply-tanned olive skin. Bright golden-brown eyes reminded Nate of a falcon’s. This was not a man who would miss much. The clothes were the thing that gave Nate pause, he had never seen anyone dress so outlandishly. The man wore a dented, but still remarkably shiny helmet, with a high fin above, and a metal brim around. It came to a sharp point in the front and back. He also wore a silvery breastplate, just like a knight in the old-time stories. Beneath the armor was a quilted cotton coat of deep crimson. His forearms had buckled on bands of metal to protect them. A wide belt with an outlandishly large golden buckle held up a pair of green breeches tucked into brown leather boots that nearly reached his thighs.
Nate knew the man must be one of those blood-thirsty conquistadors he had heard about from the twentieth-century people, but he seemed civil enough. He decided to play dumb on the subject and draw Gonzalo out.
Nate shook his head, pretending to be puzzled. “I guess you must be my knight in shining armor, mister. I heard you speakin’ Spanish, but I’m fair sure you’re no Mexican. Your English is pretty good, but some of the words sound funny, like something out of the Bible, or them Greek myths my pappy liked to read. Where the heck are you from, anyway? Argentina? Cuba? Spain?”
Gonzalo flushed a little. “Please pardon my rudeness. It is inexcusable of me to have asked your name, Corporal Nate Tucker, and not provided my own. Please consider that at the time I was preoccupied with how to safely rescue you from your imprisonment.”
Nate raised his eyebrows, a little surprised the guy had remembered his full name and rank at one hearing. This was a sharp stick, all right, and he could sure talk smooth.
Gonzalo rose up to his feet, where he stood proudly at five-foot, ten-inches, and gave a graceful bow. “I am from, as you say it in English, Spain; I am a Spaniard. My name is Gonzalo Xoan de Alcantara, originally from the province of Seville. I came to the New World in the service of my king and under the command of Hernando de Soto, but I am now— unattached.” Better not to tell another soldier that I am a deserter, Gonzalo thought.
So, Gonzalo had been with de Soto! Nate rose carefully to his feet, favoring his injured leg. He kept a close eye for any sudden moves from the Spaniard. Nate was five inches taller than Gonzalo and had a heavier build. Maybe he wasn’t in quite as top physical condition as his rescuer, but he was still a strong man, and indeed, a seasoned soldier. Nate had no doubt Gonzalo would make a dangerous foe.
“Well, that’s a mouthful, so how about I call you Gonzalo, since I can’t even pronounce that one in the middle. Just call me Nate, that’s what the folks was always hollerin’ after me. My full name, since you gave yours, is Nathaniel Theseus Tucker, born in what is now the Republic of Texas, near Austin. Corporal is my rank in the United States of America’s Army, who is my employer, but I am also currently unattached.” Nate didn’t say anything about being caught in the sack with a Cherokee chief’s teen-age daughter, the little indiscretion that had caused him to light out on his own until things cooled down. Best not let on to another soldier that I’m a deserter, Nate thought. He smiled, shrugging his broad shoulders.
“Thank you, Nate. Gonzalo is my given name, so please do call me that.”
Nate nodded cordially, but still kept a wary eye on his rescuer.
“All right then, Gonzalo, we are fine and well introduced.” Nate wanted to find out more about Gonzalo’s relationship with that evil bastard de Soto. He decided to try to draw him out further.
“Say, Gonzalo, did I hear you say you was with Hernando de Soto?”
“Yes, I was with de Soto, we were following the great river when we were taken by some unknowable force into this evil country.” Gonzalo paused as he saw an odd look come over Nate’s face. “Do you know de Soto? Has he harmed your people? If so, please, accept my most profound apologies. I have broken with that devil and his band of murderers and intend to become a man of the cloth to atone for my sins! I have no fight with any Englishman, or whatever country it is you served, so please, let we two remain at peace!” Gonzalo’s rich voice rung with a plaintive tone.
Nate believed the man was perfectly sincere and was relieved not to be in the company of an unrepentant raider.
Nate let out a low breath. What to say? From the sound of him, Gonzalo wouldn’t be upset by the news. “I know of de Soto. I heard he’s dead now.” He rubbed the sandy-colored stubble on his chin and waited for Gonzalo’s reaction.
Gonzalo’s bushy eyebrows raised in surprise. “Then a scourge has been removed from the Earth. He will face God’s justice now!” A certain weight seemed to slip off Gonzalo’s shoulders.
Nate figured it was time to lead the discussion away from that subject. “Well, that explains why you’re dressed so funny. This thing that happened to us, that brought us to this crazy country, still has a few tricks up its sleeves. You’re from the 1500’s. Where I come from the year is 1838, and I’m not an Englishman, but a lot of my ancestors were. I speak English, but I’m a Texan. In the ‘when’ you came from, my country didn’t exist yet. Shoot, just when I think none of this could get any stranger, here you are, a living, breathing man from almost three centuries ago.”
They regarded each other for a moment, Gonzalo absorbing this revelation. The Spaniard shook his head in wonder.
“So. We are not just men of different lands, but different times? You came from my future. I only believe it because of all the other impossible things I have seen. Tell me, Nate, is Spain still a great nation in your century?”
Nate scratched the back of his neck and said “Well, it’s still a nation, but it lost some territory along the way. I’m afraid you missed its heyday. My pappy was a learned man, and he made sure I knew my history. You and me coming from different times might explain a few other things, too. I’m starting to think that maybe we are still in North America, just in another time, a long, long time ago. Some other folks I ran into who say they are from even farther in the future than us, all think so.” Nate saw Gonzalo’s questioning look and said “That’s a whole ‘nuther story, I’ll tell you later. Anyway, they said that in the twentieth-century they had been digging up monster bones that were so old they’d turned to stone, and we are now back millions of years in the ‘Cretaceous Age’, when all these big critters, which they called ‘dinosaurs’, were still running around. It’s all hard to swallow, but looking around here, I figure they might have the right of it.”
Just as Nate finished speaking, a wailing howl rose up from the jungle beneath them. Gonzalo had heard it before and forced himself to stay calm. Long shadows had stretched across the landscape, it was almost sundown. Instinctively, Nate reached for his pistol and found it wasn’t there.
“What the hell? Where’s my gun, Spaniard?”
Gonzalo took a step back, arms held out in a gesture of supplication. “Please, Nate, I didn’t know if you were a man of reason or not. I had to wait to see if I could trust you.” Gonzalo very slowly reached into his leather pouch while Nate scowled at him, and brought out the pistol, holding it gingerly by the pearl handle, barrel down. He put it down on a cairn of flat stones someone had left there, and then did the same with the man’s sword.
“Here are your weapons back. Please, forgive me.” Gonzalo stepped backward a few paces to give Nate room to retrieve his belongings.
Once the pistol and sword were safely back at his belt Nate gave Gonzalo a grim smile.
“Does that mean you trust me now?” Nate asked him, head cocked a bit to the side as if not sure he would believe whatever he heard next.
“It means I trust in God If you are The Angel of Death sent to bring me to my final judgment, then it is His Will, and I accept my fate.” Smiling beatifically, Gonzalo turned his back to Nate and began to gather more deadfall. “Now, it is growing late quickly. Let us build up the fire. It is our best hope of keeping the night’s beasts at bay. Then we shall have something to eat. I have some dried meat, don’t ask me from what creature, as I cannot truly say what it was. It seemed more bird than lizard, but had claws on its wings. It’s not really food fit for a man, but it’s all I have, and I will gladly share it with you if you wish.” The howl came back again, perhaps a bit closer. “The fire! We should hurry! Build it large!”
They spent the next few minutes warily scrambling about for more wood. Nate favored his sore ankle, but managed to get around fairly well despite his ordeal. Once they had a six-foot tall blaze going they relaxed a little. The howling jungle-thing must have smelled the smoke, and decided to move on, its call receding back into the inky depths of the jungle below.
Gonzalo now tended to his horse, making sure it was tightly tied to the thorn tree by a lead long enough for it to browse whatever odd shrubs it could find nearby. He brought out a handful of precious oats, carefully fed them to the animal, then poured some water into its open mouth. This was something they had practiced during their years together, man and beast in partnership.
“That’s a good boy, sleep well, my friend,” Gonzalo muttered to it in his native tongue.
“He’s a beautiful horse. What’s his name?” Nate asked. It took a moment for Gonzalo to realize that Nate had spoken to him in Spanish, albeit with an outrageous accent.
“You speak my language!”
“A lot of folks down in Texas speak Spanish, and I just picked it up over the years. It’s probably not as good as that funny old-time English of yours, but I can get by.”
Gonzalo found himself smiling broadly. Suddenly, this stranger he had rescued, this man who said he was from a future time and a country that didn’t exist yet, didn’t seem that strange any more.
“His name is Flavio, for his fair color. A ‘blondie’, you might say. We have been together for five years, and he is more than just my mount, he is a good friend.” Gonzalo rubbed the stallion’s cheek gently.
Nate looked down at his boots. “Yeah, I know how that is. I have a horse, too, but it ran off this morning while I was caught in the tree. Bad piece of luck all that; I had just got down to take a little siesta in the shade when that snare done nabbed me! Didn’t have time to tie her up. She would’ve come when I called, but just then she got spooked by that whooping critter out there and tore off. Can’t blame the darn animal none, I would’ve run for it, too. Thought for sure that thing was going to come eat me, although it would have found I still had some fight left.”
Nate patted the butt of his pistol with what Gonzalo thought was a kind of affection. A powerful weapon indeed . . .
Gonzalo felt keenly for the loss of Nate’s horse, he could see the man was more upset about it than he was letting on. He felt that Flavio was perhaps part of what kept him going, someone else to care for, even when all the world had become a hopeless wasteland.
“Which way did it run?” Gonzalo asked, trying to sound encouraging. “Perhaps we can track your horse, find it for you.”
“Went that-a-way.” Nate pointed northward along the low range that separated the jungle from the plains. “There, you can see the tracks. Poor little Poppy, I bet she’ll be some big bad beasty’s dinner. Cryin’ shame.”
Gonzalo thought for a moment that the tall, tough looking soldier might actually shed a tear and couldn’t help but pity him. “Nate—please, do not despair. In the morning, at first light, I will help you track your horse. I have hunted big game in terrain similar to this; I have some skills.”
Nate stared at Gonzalo, a hard look coming over his tanned, square-jawed face.
“Why would you do that for me? You don’t know me from Adam! I mean, I appreciate you saving my life and all, but I can’t ask any more from you. I don’t like to be in another man’s debt.”
“Do not think that way, please. It will be my pleasure. I have traveled alone in this wilderness for too long, and I am sure there is safety in numbers. By providing another set of eyes, another sword, you would be helping me as much as I would be helping you! Besides, I have nowhere else to go, and at least by helping another I may yet find favor in the eyes of my Lord.” He cast his eyes down. “I have much to atone for.”
The look on Nate’s face softened. “I s’pose I have a few things to atone for, too.” Nate thought about telling Gonzalo about the part he had played in the Trail of Tears. Maybe he wasn’t as bad as a conquistador, but there were some innocent deaths weighing on whatever passed for his soul these days. For now he decided it best not to say too much regarding his own origins.
“Well, Gonzalo, I’ll bet’ya I’m as big a sinner as you, so don’t be so hard on yourself. Tell you what, I’ll take you up on your offer, it’s a deal! And—thank you.” Nate stuck his hand out. Gonzalo took it. The creature howled again in the distant darkness.
“I’ll take first watch,” Nate said. “I’m too full of thinkin’ to sleep just now anyway.”
Nate tended the fire and stalked about their camp, watching the starlit horizon until well after midnight while Gonzalo snored softly, sleeping in a sitting position against the bole of the tree, completely hidden beneath a black wool fleece. Eventually he stirred, then stood up, stretching with a groan.
“Get a good sleep?” Nate asked.
“Yes, the best in many days, thank you. I knew either you would watch over me, or I would have passed beyond such cares, a liberating feeling, yes? Now, if you like, I will take the watch and repay your kindness.”
Nate nodded, thinking about the offer. “Right. Well I’m one ‘tuckered out Tucker’ as my pappy used’ta say, so I will accept.”
Gonzalo smiled brightly. “Then, it must be that you trust me? I am pleased.”
“I trust you more than I trust God, that’s fer sure. He never seemed to cotton much to me. Anyway, g’night, Gonzalo Xoan de Alcantara, originally from the province of Seville.”
Gonzalo laughed aloud, pleased that Nate had actually remembered all of that in one hearing. Gonzalo regarded his new companion with the cautious respect of a fellow warrior. He is a crocodile sunning himself on the banks. When he does move, it will be with unexpected speed and unstoppable force.
Nate lay down on a cowhide at a safe distance from the spitting and sputtering fire, the oily wood occasionally shooting out showers of sparks. He wadded up a smooth wool blanket, striped with many marvelous colors, under his head and stretched out, his thick coat and breeches more than enough cover for the sultry night.
“Sleep well, Nate.” Gonzalo looked up at the countless stars scattered across the inky black sky and wondered at the Lord’s mysterious ways.
The dawn rays shone across the plains, bathing the world in a golden glow. The branches of the thorn trees filled with so much light that it was hard to look directly at them. They cast long, twisted, bronze shadows across the nearby jungle’s brooding expanse.
The sunrise revealed a new spectacle to Gonzalo and Nate. Far to the west, across the wet, shimmering lowlands, rose unbelievably huge coniferous trees. The arboreal giants formed a great, green wall from north to south, a living mountain range of shining needles and radiating limbs. Both men silently marveled at the awesome beauty before them.
“I had thought we were in hell.” Gonzalo spoke in a low, reverent tone. “I must have been wrong. Only God could create such beauty. Surely, he would not do such fine work as this in the land of the damned.”
After a long, silent time gazing, they tore themselves away from the paradisaical vista. A few minutes later they were following the tracks of Nate’s horse northwards along the low-lying, sandy hills.
There was something about the nature of that morning that caused both men to remain quiet. There was much they would have liked to ask each other. Fighting men separated, from their armies, come to miss the companionship of their brothers in arms. But there was a pall on the land that made them keep their own counsel. As they followed Nate’s horse’s skittery tracks, they walked side by side in companionable silence. Gonzalo led his gear-laden horse, taking things a bit slowly, as he could see Nate still favored his injured ankle.
All three kept a wary eye and ear out for danger. The unearthly howl came again, its source hidden by the mass of vegetation below and behind them. Now they knew the cause of their disquiet; they were being followed.
“Have you ever heard a sound like that back in Spain?” Nate whispered.
“No, never!” Gonzalo whispered back. “I have even been to such exotic lands as Africa and the East Indies, but never have I heard a beast with such a voice. It is no jackal, nor wolf.”
“Whatever it is, it’s probably huge and full of sharp teeth. Shit-fire, I wish that fool nag of mine had the dang sense to turn east and get well clear of that jungle!” His whisper was a sincere lament.
Gonzalo nodded in silent agreement. He thought about allowing Nate to ride Flavio, but he was such a large fellow, and his horse badly needed a rest after their sojourn in the swamps.
They pressed on, moving at as fast a pace as they could without losing the trail in the hard scrabble between sand drifts. Nate’s face was grim; he kept his hand on the butt of his pistol at all times, but it gave him scant comfort. The only way he had escaped the big critters so far had been by outrunning them on his horse. Now things had gone from pretty bad to plumb awful.
It was still two hours before noon when Gonzalo’s horse gave a snort and shook his head.
“What is it, what do you smell?” Gonzalo asked the animal, gently rubbing his broad, pale-gold cheek. Flavio snorted again, shaking his head up and down. Then he bent his neck low to the ground and sniffed with great interest. Gonzalo turned to Nate, who had an incredulous look on his face. Gonzalo laughed, quietly.
“Flavio is no hunting dog, but he does have a very large nose, yes? Tell me, what kind is your horse.”
“It’s an appaloosa, one of them Injun breeds.”
“No, I mean what is the animal’s gender? Is it a boy horse or a girl horse?”
Nate started to grin. “Why, lil’ ole’ Poppy is a girl horse! She’s just as tough as any stud or gelding, that’s fer sure, and she’s carried me through some hard fighting.” Nate began to chuckle softly, too. “So, your Flavio’s manhood is intact.”
“A stallion, indeed! And, he always has a nose for the ladies. Your mare cannot be far; fear not, friend, randy Flavio will find her!”
Both of them grinning like fools, they charged ahead, now letting Flavio take the lead. As they came around a slowly curving hillside, the horse paused.
“He smells something else now. Let us hope it is not our noisy friend, yes?”
“I haven’t heard that critter yelp for a while now, it must have decided we were too much to make a meal of. I get the feeling that most of these critters ain’t never seen a proper man nor horse before. Still, they have a way of looking at you like they’re wondering how you’d taste, so I never stick around long enough to let them find out.”
“I hope it is so, those howls were enough to make a man shiver even in this heat. Here, let us stay out of sight until we see what lies beyond.”
Using the odd-looking plants that passed for brush and trees in those parts for cover, they worked their way forward until they had a view. In a shallow draw ahead of them, they saw a camp. There were three men, who were surely American Indians, gathered around a fire. They were wearing little but tanned-hide breechcloths and bead necklaces; their hair was long and raven black. Nearby was Nate’s mare, alive, but trussed up on her side like a deer ready for skinning. The men were busy sharpening some kind of knives—Nate’s heart leaped into his throat.
“Damn it all! They’re fixing to eat her! We gotta stop’em!” he started to rise, loosening the pistol at his side.
Gonzalo gently put his hand on Nate’s shoulder. “Please, Nate, wait! These are the first men besides ourselves I have seen in this place. Do you not think it would not be better to befriend them? I have seen too many people such as these murdered at de Soto’s’ decree; I would not see it again. Let us try to reason with them.”
Nate forced himself to take a deep breath. It made him angry to see poor Poppy suffering and in danger. “All right then, you have a point, but I’m not feeling too friendly right now. These are prob’ly the bastards who set that snare I got caught up in! They didn’t even leave a warning for innocents passing by.” Nate was simmering with resentment.
Gonzalo cocked his head, remembering something. “Actually, Nate, I think they did leave a warning. That cairn of stones near the tree, that must have been the work of a man, and something a dumb beast would never notice. That must have been their warning sign!”
Nate scowled deeply but nodded his head in acquiescence. “Yeah, you’re quite likely right about that. I suppose that makes me a dumb beast, too,” he said ruefully. “Still, it wasn’t anything most honest, clothes-wearing men would take notice of. You have a sharper eye than I do, Gonzalo.” Nate took a moment to study the group carefully. “I seen a lot of Injuns in my day but I ain’t never seen this tribe. They kind’a look like they might be a branch of Sioux, but I can’t be sure.”
“I think I may know them. They somewhat resemble the Pacaha people, who we had dealings with. If so, I can speak some of their language.”
“Are you sure?” Before Gonzalo could answer, a too familiar piercing wail filled their ears. Their wide eyes followed it to its source, directly below them in the jungle at the bottom of the hill. There was something moving through the dense foliage, something big.
“Oh shit,” Nate whispered.
“A dragon.” Gonzalo stated with an awed, almost reverent tone.
They watched the fearsome creature come crashing out of the jungle. A dragon, yes sir, that about covers it.
It was thirty feet tall and weighed around two tons. The deadly predator walked on two massive hind legs like a ground bird, but with a long, muscular tail held behind as a counterbalance for its enormous head. The thrashing front claws were relatively small compared to its size, but still big enough to tear a man in half. Its main weapons were the fang-walled, gaping jaws that could swallow a grown man in a single bite. These doors to death were currently wide open as it bellowed its unearthly, ear-splitting howl. Gonzalo thought it must make this sound to startle and immobilize its prey in abject fear, it was certainly having that effect on everyone present. The terrifying beast took in the scene with a sweep of its glowering, violet-lensed eyes. Having decided who to eat first, it lunged into a charge at the group of natives to its left.
Before Nate could even begin to draw his gun, wiry and quick Gonzalo had jumped onto his horse’s back. With a click of his tongue he sent his well-trained mount thundering forward, heading down the gentle slope on a collision course with the monster. Gonzalo freed his nine-foot-long, steel-tipped lance from its clasps on the saddle and brought it to bear, aiming at the dragon’s side just below its upper claws.
Nate swore to himself, then shouted after him, “Hey, Saint George! Come back here, you loco Spaniard!” He started to run after his rapidly accelerating companion. This made his still-sore leg start to ache something fierce, which did not improve his mood one bit. “Goin’ ta get us both kilt! He’s a regular goddamn Don Quixote!” Nate cursed to himself as he raised his trusty Colt revolver before him, ready to take any shot that might do some good, although the weapon felt like a kid’s pea-shooter when pitted against that thing.
Gonzalo was yodeling at the top of his lungs, a sound that was able to cut through the creature’s howling and get its attention. The massive beast tried to slow its charge, realizing that something was attacking it, a very rare occurrence indeed! This fine and deadly top predator had never seen anything like the bizarre animal that was coming at it, seemingly a four-legged, two-armed beast with a single, long horn. The ‘dragon’ was about to make a sudden turn and bite the intruder in half when it skidded on a patch of hard scrabble between the sand drifts and started to lose balance. Its bid to quickly change the direction of its mass was thrown off by the slide, and it began to keel over, away from Gonzalo and his horse. Those tiny pebbles scattered across the clay ground had probably saved Gonzalo’s life, at least for the moment.
Flavio was fast and sure-footed. Gonzalo urged the stallion on with a squeeze of his calves. There! The dragon has lost its balance, there is our opening! May the Good Lord protect us! Just as the creature began to topple over as it skidded, they arrived. Yodeling like a madman, Gonzalo drove his lance deep into the thick, azure-blue and light-gray striped hide that covered the creature’s rib cage. Gonzalo could feel its flexible length shiver as the razor-sharp tip glanced off a huge rib, then delved further into its innards. The liquid pops and splitting tears of ruptured organs could be heard as the lance drove deeper and deeper toward the heart of the dragon.
Gonzalo leaped free of Flavio, keeping all his weight on the lance, allowing the horse to vault safely over the bulk of the falling beast. Gallons of thick, scarlet blood fountained out of the wound as Gonzalo let go of the weapon. The remainder of his momentum sent him off in a brief, uncontrolled flight into the underbrush. He was jarred but not seriously injured. It took him a few moments to thrash himself free of the thick growth that had mostly broken his fall. Flavio had very nimbly managed to leap clear of the jungle’s edge and was warily circling at a safe distance from the downed dragon. Gonzalo, muscles already throbbing and sore from his less-than-graceful landing, walked cautiously over to examine the beast’s head where it lay on the sand, heavily muscled jaws still thrashing slowly as if it were chewing its prey in a dream. The violet eyes were closed, and its breathing was a ragged wheeze. The dragon was slain, or nearly so. Gonzalo was quite sure he had driven his lance directly into the terrible thing’s heart.
He looked over to the three tribesmen. They all stood frozen, their mouths agape and ebony eyes wide with astonishment. Gonzalo raised his arm in the way that he had seen the Pacaha people do, and shouted out a greeting in that tongue. As he took a step toward them he paused, feeling an uncomfortably hot wind at his back, a wind that smelled of rotten meat. Gonzalo turned around to see that the dragon was not quite dead yet, the huge jaws had opened wide and were lunging toward him, the beast using the last of its strength to end the life of its slayer. He would not have time to run before they scooped him up and snapped shut, the dagger-like fangs slicing him into pieces. It was hopeless, but he began to draw his sword.
“Dear God, have mercy on this sinner!” Gonzalo prayed with what was surely his last breath.
A loud report blasted through the sultry air. The creature’s head dropped to the ground, closing the jaws with a bone-chilling clack. Gonzalo had stood firm, his sword held firmly in both hands as if ready to cut himself free from a flesh and bone prison if he could have somehow dodged the fangs.
“And stay down, you cussed varmint!” Nate shouted at the now thoroughly deceased monster, giving it a firm kick in its pebble-scaled jowl just below its ruptured, bloody eye. He had placed a bullet directly through the pupil into its brain, finishing the job for certain. Nate looked at Gonzalo and flashed him a self-satisfied grin. “Lookie here, now we’re even. You saved my skin, I saved yours.”
Gonzalo shook off the terror of the moment and grinned back. “Of course, my friend, we are even. I have no words with which to thank you! If not for you I would have surely perished in the jaws of the beast, serving as its last meal!”
“More like an appetizer. There ain’t enough of you to make a decent meal. Something small and spicy before he went for the corn-fed cuts.” Nate clapped his stomach soundly. “Now, let’s go see about my horse.”
They walked slowly toward the camp together, arms outstretched in a gesture of peace, both splattered in the blood of the monster they had killed. The three men there watched them approach, their own hands held out in the same gesture. They stopped a few yards away from the simple camp, and Gonzalo began to speak. Before he could say a word the three tribesmen started talking quickly in exalted and excited tones, laughing and smiling at them. Then they were taking their bead necklaces off and placing them over Gonzalo and Nate’s heads, their reverent movements conveying deep gratitude.
“What do you figure they’re saying?” Nate asked Gonzalo, smiling back at the very friendly fellows while trying to politely dodge having more beads placed on him.
“It is a different dialect of the Pacaha language from the one I learned, but I can understand much of it. They are calling us great heroes. I am fairly sure they wish to praise us for our bravery and thank us for saving their lives.” Gonzalo paused as the men continued to gesticulate and babble on in high-spirited tones. “Oh, now I am quite sure they have given us a title, something like Killers of the Terrible Lizard! I am certain they consider this the highest of praise, they must surely live in great fear of these dragons.”
“Well, we’re just like old Saint George, a couple of bonafide dragon-slayers! At least you look the part with your shining armor.” Nate managed to smile back at his new, highly effusive admirers. The three tribesmen began to settle down, ushering Nate and Gonzalo toward the fire. Nate didn’t like the hungry way they kept looking at his bound-up horse. He drew his saber to cut her loose, and if there were to be any misunderstanding about that he would use the blade to drive home his point. There was no cause to waste precious bullets on these half-naked fellers and their stone knives. Poppy saw him, and gave him a plaintive whinny. I’m a-comin’, lil’ darlin’, don’t you fret now!
Gonzalo was so taken up with the warm praise their hosts were showering upon them that he had forgotten all about the issue of Nate’s horse. This guy don’t get out much, Nate thought darkly to himself. Gonzalo called out to him with almost child-like delight.
“Nate! We have been invited to dine with them! We are their honored guests!”
“That’s wonderful, Gonzalo! Now please let them know that horse is not what’s for dinner!”
Pyramids in the Corn
If Nate closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he was back home in Texas, sitting under the shady willows at his family’s ranch on a summer evening, the smoke from the cookfire heralding the pleasures of the meal to come. Unfortunately, he couldn’t close his eyes. He needed them to watch for approaching danger: specifically, terrifying beasts of monstrous size. He wasn’t home anymore, nowhere near, and was pretty sure he would never set foot there again. At least he was sitting in the shade, although it was provided by a plant that looked like it couldn’t make its mind up whether it was a tree or a cactus. He was careful not to lean against its thorny trunk.
The smoke actually did smell pretty good, but that was no trusty Texas beef they were roasting, it was a slab of genuine dragon leg. Nate watched as Gonzalo used a long, mean-looking dagger to carve it up as pretty as a Christmas goose. Nate took a careful bite. The dark, stringy meat reminded him of bird, but more hawk than turkey. This was the lean flesh of a predator. To call it ‘gamey’ didn’t quite suffice, but it was made palatable by the salt and herbs the tribesmen had rubbed it with. As he ate the pungent fare, he decided he was just plain glad to be alive, considering the ordeal of the previous days.
Instead of reviewing his long list of complaints, hurts, and mistakes, Nate made himself focus on the situation at hand. He looked over at his new traveling companion, the ex-conquistador Gonzalo, who was gobbling down dragon meat like it was a slab of first-prize barbecue ribs at the summer fair. Who knew what awful food this man from some three-hundred years before Nate’s own time had endured? Compared to the rations of a conquistador in the New World of the 1540s, monster meat might just taste like heaven. Their three new acquaintances obviously agreed. They were tucking in with relish. Well, at least no one was starving in this hellish country where they had all ended up, not yet, anyway. He would count that as a good thing, in a time and place where good things were rare.
The three tribesmen had been very busy working over the corpse of the dragon, taking the best cuts of meat to dry in the sun, tanning parts of the massive hide, and removing certain bones and teeth for whatever arcane purposes their heathen gods required. With apologetic bows, they briefly interrupted the meal to bestow gifts on Nate and Gonzalo; sometime during the night they had crafted matching leather necklaces, from which hung the two largest of the dragon’s front fangs. These were ceremoniously draped over their heads, followed by another round of bows and the sincere thanks of the recipients, both a bit embarrassed by all the attention their new-found hero status was bringing.
When breakfast was finished, they broke camp quickly. Nate and Gonzalo tended to their horses, while their ever-efficient new friends put out the fire and packed up their supplies. Within minutes they were on the march, the too-bright sun still fairly low in the sky.
Gonzalo rode in silent contemplation, still digesting the magnitude of what he had learned from Nate about their predicament. Time travelers they were, an impossible thing, yet here they were in a land of mystery and terror that he knew in his heart couldn’t possibly be the world of his own time. More than ever he regretted his rash decision to follow mad de Soto to the New World in search of fame and fortune, a venture that had ended only in death and disaster. Would he ever see the sun-drenched orchards of his native Seville again? There was so much he didn’t know; perhaps whatever cataclysm had brought them here would eventually return them. He held onto that hope, although it was small. Whatever happened next would be God’s will, and he took some solace in that, although he didn’t think his standing with the Lord was very good right now.
Always alert for danger, their guides led them through the wide, sandy spaces between the misshapen thorn trees dotting the hills. Once, a huge bird swooped in low over their heads, startling everyone. It circled back. Upon closer scrutiny, it wasn’t a bird at all but some kind of flying lizard! A leathery-skinned, bat-winged monstrosity the slate-blue and dark-gray hue of thunderclouds, with a long, beak-like mouth, and a strange crest protruding from its head. Its wingspan was at least twelve-feet wide! Gonzalo crossed himself, thinking it an imp of Satan. The horses snorted in trepidation, but their riders kept them under control. They were both well-trained warhorses and accustomed to peril.
Nate’s hand instinctively went to the pearl handle of his prized Colt Patterson revolver. He had taken to carrying the weapon loaded, with all five shots ready, along with a loaded spare cylinder as backup. There was always the danger of an accidental discharge, but he had decided to take his chances with that over being eaten by one of the local monsters. Watching the evil-looking creature circle, he once again regretted being forced to abandon his rifle with the Cherokees. But with a mad-as-hell chief and all his sons and nephews coming at him with blood on their minds, he hadn’t had time to pack. The truth was, he had been lucky to get out of there with his clothes on. She sure had been a pretty lil’ minx, but hardly worth that kind of trouble.
The flying creature let out an ear-splitting shriek, glared at them with baleful crimson eyes, then flapped away, its wing beats like a deep, distant drum. It flew toward the great forest now only five miles distant, an immense wall painted a thousand shades of green. Once the foul thing was gone, the group began moving again, but all with half an eye looking to the sky for further visitors.
“That thing was right out of a Bosch painting,” Nate said.
“Who was Bosch?” Gonzalo asked after a while.
“He was a seventeenth-century Dutch painter. He had a wild imagination, and delighted in portraying the most-livid scenes of hell, full of nightmarish imps and demons. Fascinating work, best not viewed just before bedtime.”
“I would say his vision was quite correct; if that wasn’t an imp from hell I don’t know what else it could be,” Gonzalo said, squinting toward the sky with a scowl. He crossed himself again, just for good measure.
Nate started to speak, but paused, his eyes widening.
“What in tarnation is that?”
He lifted his arm, pointing at something odd looming beyond the next rise. It appeared to be the top of a building, too distant to make out clearly, but definitely man-made, its angles too perfect for nature. Their guides, unmounted, couldn’t see it yet.
“Tell your pals we’re going to pick up the pace, Gonzalo. Let’s hurry up and get to the top of that next hill.”
Once the tribesmen were alerted to their intentions, Nate gave Poppy a click that sent her into a canter. He took a moment to rejoice in having his prize mare back safe and sound. She was a pretty thing, an appaloosa from the distant northwest, and he had paid a pretty penny for her. Her colorful, orange-spotted coat had reminded Nate of a field of poppies back home, and so she was called.
Nate reached the top of the hill just a few seconds before Gonzalo caught up to him on his swift palomino stallion. Poppy stood a hand taller than her new paramour, and it made the difference in the stretch. They brought their mounts to a halt, both staring in disbelief.
“It’s—a city!” Nate said, eyes wide with amazement.
Before them lay a twenty-some-mile-wide stretch of floodplain, fields of achingly-familiar shades of green and gold over rich, dark soil, dotted with trees of startling normalcy. The middle distance was occupied by a city about five square miles in size. Portions of it were walled and construction could be seen where they were erecting more such fortifications. The ubiquitous forest of gigantic conifers bordered one side of this paradisaical stretch of earth. There were signs that logging was taking place; there would be no shortage of timber available to the builders.
The central city was a wonder, hundreds of wattle-and-daub buildings dominated by a group of massive, pyramid-like mounds, square at their base, flat-topped, and covered with grass except for stone and timber stairways. They could only have been constructed by the hands of man in what must have been an enormous undertaking. The largest was well over a hundred feet tall, not counting the barn-sized building occupying most of its flat top. The mound’s footprint was at least fourteen acres! There were wide, open spaces between these structures where people could be seen moving about, although they were too far away to make out in any detail.
“I have heard of cities such as this from the tales of former comrades, men who had followed Cortés into Central America,” Gonzalo said, his voice low-pitched with awe at the spectacle before them. “Great pyramids of stone had been constructed there, much the same as those found in Egypt. These seem to be formed of earth. It is strange, no one knew of such a city in North America.”
“In your time. Or mine, for that matter. My guess is, this place is from a long time before either of our peoples came along. In any case, it’s pretty incredible! I’ve never seen anything man-made that big. Must be some kind of castles.” Nate’s face was filled with an almost child-like wonder.
“Or cathedrals,” Gonzalo said, touching the silver cross at his breast.
Their three guides had caught up with them and gestured toward the city with wide smiles. One of them spoke for a few moments, then started walking down the hill.
“I can’t be certain, Nate, but I think he called this the Place of Our Children’s Children Their dialect is rather strange; I’m afraid I can only understand bits and pieces. Perhaps our friends here are from an even more distant past?”
“Well, considering that we both came from different times, that doesn’t sound too surprising. Let’s hope their children’s children are as nice a folks as these fellows seem to be.”
“Yes, let us hope so. The Aztec city-dwellers of Central America were known for bloody rituals of human sacrifice.” Gonzalo told him with a rather grim expression on his bushy-bearded face.
At the bottom of the hill, the thorny scrub-lands abruptly gave way to fields of good, old-fashioned plains grass, as if the two terrains were bolts of different cloth laid edge to edge. Progress forward had to pause, as the horses stopped to eat their fill. There could be no dragging them away from such a sumptuous meal after the meager rations they had been subsisting on. The men all smiled, feasting their eyes on the sweet verdure of God’s proper Earth. Here and there, meadow flowers bloomed, so beautiful as to nearly break their hearts.
After a while, they urged their still-hungry mounts forward; it wouldn’t do well to fill their bellies too full after what had been nearly a fast. There would be plenty for later, and—
Dear Savior, was that corn up ahead? Gonzalo and Nate shared a hungry look as they passed through fields of tall, stately maize, crowned with golden tassels. Nate figured it was probably that multi-colored, tough injun corn in the husks, but at this point he could chew up a corncob pipe for supper and ask for seconds.
As they drew closer to the great city, Gonzalo wondered if his former comrades, the conquistadors, had come here, and what evils they might have perpetrated. It was very possible he would not be welcomed. In fact, they might want his head to display on a pike above the city gates. He bore this fear silently, resolving that he deserved whatever fate awaited him as payment for his many sins. He might have survived the terrors of the swamp only to be brought down by what he thought must be the forebears of those indigenous peoples de Soto’s expedition had used so cruelly.
They followed a narrow, hard-packed road through the fields. Along the way, a very surprised-looking native stuck his head out of the stalks, eyes goggling at the approaching visitors. After a brief but very animated exchange with their guides, the man shot ahead, running full tilt toward the city. Not long after, they arrived at a heavy, wooden gate between two towers of rough-hewn timber. Each tower held five warriors, all with bows aimed at them. Twenty more bowmen lined the top of the wall on each side. Their guides turned to Nate and Gonzalo, their gestures unmistakably signaling for them to wait where they were.
Gonzalo said something that must have meant consent in their language, and the three began walking toward the gate, arms held high, calling out loudly all the while. Some of the men in the towers called back, and a long, loud conversation began, which included many dramatic gesticulations.
“Can you understand them?” Nate asked Gonzalo. The Spaniard had taken off his helmet, securing it firmly behind him on the saddle. He pushed damp locks of thick, black hair back from his brow, then cocked his head like a hunting bird, listening carefully. After a moment, he sighed.
“Very little, I’m afraid. This is yet again a different dialect, perhaps some other tongue entirely. It is always like this with the natives. Go but a little ways up a river and you will find a completely different language.”
Nate laughed softly. “I know how that is. I can speak Cherokee pretty good, and a smattering of Chickasaw and Choctaw. This here sounds a bit like some kind of garbled Choctaw, but I can’t really be sure. Anyway, I wonder what the fuss is all about. Those fellows on the wall don’t look too happy to see us.”
“I fear I might know why. If they have met others of de Soto’s force, it is highly likely it would have ended badly, and so they would not be pleased to see a man such as me.” Gonzalo’s darkly-tanned, olive-skinned face was deeply etched with shame.
“Well, even so, it wasn’t you, you were no longer with them. Our new friends there will vouch for you, I think.”
“Perhaps. I shall meet whatever judgment awaits me. I have sinned much and am tired of fleeing my fate. It will be God’s will if I meet my death at the hands of my fellow man rather than in the maw of some dragon.”
“The hell it will! Buck up, man. If it comes to that, we beat it the hell out of here! You can’t just let them take you!” Nate paused for a moment. The idea of losing his odd new companion so soon didn’t sit well with him. “If we have to, we’ll fight!”
“You must not risk yourself for me, my friend! I am not worthy of such sacrifice.”
“You were The Good Samaritan stepped right out of the pages of the Bible when you cut me loose from that snare. The Lord has to count that in your favor.” Nate reached over to clap Gonzalo’s armored shoulder encouragingly. There was an audible clang.
Nate wriggled his fingers as if to shake loose the pain. “Ow! Anyway, I’d prefer it if you stick around a little longer. You’re the only friend I got, sinning son-of-a-bitch Spaniard or not!”
Gonzalo let out a sharp little laugh and brightened up considerably. It had been a long time since anyone had called him ‘friend,’ and it filled him with unexpected pride that someone was now, especially someone who appeared to be a loner by nature. He was fairly sure that Corporal Nathan Theseus Tucker didn’t use the word often, or lightly.
One of their guides came running back with a worried expression upon his face. He spoke so rapidly that Gonzalo had to ask him to slow down. After listening for a few minutes with a furrowed brow and a mighty frown on his face, he turned to Nate.
“It is as I feared. They recognize me as a member of de Soto’s party. It seems my ex-companions attempted a raid on this city some weeks before, the fools! They were unsuccessful of course, but have enraged the city folk. Our guides have told them that I am no longer one of that lot, and that we two fought valiantly against the dragon, surely saving their lives. He says the guards have sent for a wise-man to come talk to us. He will determine if I am fit to enter their city.” He crossed himself, then sat there looking morose with his head bowed.
Nate saw the gate crack open just enough for a man to step out. He was an older fellow, perhaps in his sixties, although it was often hard to tell with the natives. He was dressed in simple, white robes. His silvery hair fell in two tight braids down his chest, in a style quite unlike the men on the walls, who wore their coal-black locks long and loose.
“Gonzalo, snap out of it! Here comes the wise-man.”
As their visitor drew near, an unexpected expression of pleasure lit up Gonzalo’s face, like sunshine after a summer storm.
“I know this man!” Gonzalo exclaimed. Carefully keeping his movements very slow, he dismounted, which filled Nate with anxiety as he was planning on a swift get-away should things go sour. Gonzalo walked forward a few steps, open hands held out to his sides.
“Salomón? Can it be you?” Gonzalo called out in his odd, old-time Spanish.
The older man smiled broadly and stepped up his pace, hurrying toward the waiting Spaniard.
“Gonzalo! So, you are alive! I am most pleased!” he answered in the same language. The two came together, taking each other’s hands in affectionate greeting. Gonzalo gently led the older man over to where Nate waited. The former cavalry scout didn’t dismount, still keeping a wary eye on the men on the wall.
“Nate, this is Salomón, a wise-man indeed! He served us as guide and translator for many months, earning the respect of even the most hardened of my people. Salomón, Nate here is a great warrior of a future people called Texans. He is a castaway in these lands just as we are.”
Nate made a polite dip of the head.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, sir,” he said in what he hoped was Spanish that would be intelligible to these men of a different century.
“Oh, you speak Gonzalo’s language, too? You look so different from the other foreign men I have met,” Salomón said, studying him closely with sharp, deep-brown eyes.
“I’m of English extraction,” Nate told him.
“English, yes! That is the language of the others that have come from the future. You are you one of them, perhaps?”
“I come from about three hundred years in your future. There are also others from even later times.”
“It is all very fascinating. If there is time, would you teach me some of your English? I should very much like to talk with all of you future people in your own language!” The old man flashed him a bright, if a bit yellow-stained, smile.
“It would be my pleasure.” Nate returned the smile. Gonzalo’s friend seemed to be a pretty likable old guy, and sharp as a tack to boot. Hopefully, he would get them out of the trouble they were in with the city people. Nate held some tentative hopes for a decent meal if they were invited in.
The former guide to the conquistadors turned back to Gonzalo.
“Gonzalo, you knew me as Salomón, the Spaniard’s nickname for me since they couldn’t be bothered to pronounce my real name. Here I am called Many Mouths, because I can speak many different tongues. I have come to prefer it. Salomón is a name and destiny I would leave behind.”
“As you wish, Many Mouths,” Gonzalo said. Apparently the man didn’t mind if it was said in Spanish. “Tell me, how did you come here?”
“After you disappeared, I vowed that I would also escape those cruel and stupid men. Just before the raid, I slipped away, hiding here in the cornfields while the last of de Soto’s soldiers attacked the city. They grossly underestimated the power of these people and were utterly defeated. When the city folk found me later, I could understand some of their language, so they brought me before their great priests. Since then, I have served as a translator, helping them communicate with the various peoples who have appeared in this strange country. Many of these are the ancestors of those who live here, while it seems I am their distant descendant, yet another very strange thing amongst so many wonders!! This city was but a legend in my time. In any case, I have a place here among them.”
Many Mouths fell silent. Nate thought he might have detected a note of regret in that last statement and wondered if working for the city folk was a voluntary position. After a moment, the wise-man smiled again.
“Give me a moment; I will tell the Sun Warriors that you are worthy of their hospitality.”
Nate and Gonzalo waited while a brief conversation ensued, then Many Mouths motioned for them to follow him.
“Come friends, you will not be harmed. These warriors serve the Sun Priests, one of the most powerful sects in the city, and they have granted you safe passage. You are very lucky to have been accompanied by these three fine gentlemen: they come from a tribe that we have identified as being a distant ancestor of the city folk and so are held in high regard here. They have introduced you as very powerful men, The Two Who Killed a Great Beast. The Sun Warriors are impressed and have decided to allow you to enter with the status of warriors, keeping your weapons with you–a great honor. Come, and I will show you the great city.”
Gonzalo remounted, worried that high-spirited Flavio might balk at being surrounded by so many strangers. They smiled and nodded to the guards as they passed by, but their effort was met with fierce glares and silence. Once inside the gate, six warriors came down from the wall and fell in silently behind them.
Viewing the city up close, Nate and Gonzalo were once again amazed at the immense scale of the place. They started across a vast field, most of it covered in well-trampled grass, but sections had recently been planted with corn and other crops. Nate looked on with approval. The city folk were well aware of the danger beyond their walls and were preparing for a long siege. Around them, the enormous temple mounds loomed like crouching giants.
In addition to the architectural feats, Gonzalo and Nate were stunned by the sheer number of people present. The city looked to be the home of at least ten-thousand, maybe more. Hundreds walked here and there across the open yards, going about their business, while hundreds more worked at various tasks. Their clothing was simple but had a certain elegance, reminding Nate of the garb of ancient Greece and Rome. Even with the crowds, the scale of the city provided plenty of open space. A jumble of small buildings and tents lining a distant wall looked to be a market, a riot of colors and motion. Beyond that were what appeared to be homes: rectangular buildings with white clay stuccoed walls and tall, peaked roofs of sturdy-looking thatch.
“It’s like the ancient world come to life before our very eyes,” Nate said, his usually low, cool voice carrying a note of awe. “We are in classical Athens, or the Land of the Pharaohs!”
“Yes, the pharaohs indeed! It is possible these priests might resemble certain biblical personages in more than just appearance,” Gonzalo added, darkly. “Let us be on our guard.”
“Amen to that!”
They continued to gaze about as they rode slowly behind Many Mouths. The old gentleman gabbled happily with the three tribesmen who had brought them here. Both of the men from yet more distant futures were stunned by the scope of it all. Neither had seen a city so large in his own time. People sometimes stopped to stare at them as they passed; others ignored them completely. There were no smiles to be had. Nate tipped his hat at a gaggle of rather attractive young ladies, who simply stared back at him with wide, dark eyes as if he were a trout that had jumped out of a creek to dance a jig.
Many Mouths paused to point at a section of wall where the timbers were new and of a larger diameter and length than their older neighbors. Some were nearly forty feet tall. These were giant conifers from the local great forests, products of the logging they had seen earlier. The new fortifications were closing a gap across a wide, bumpy field of low-growing, unusual-looking shrubbery, evidence that some of the city hadbeen left behind in its former time. Many Mouths soon confirmed this.
An empty, freshly dug canal could be seen running under the wall beneath a stretch of horizontal boards. They were darn close to true, and Nate wondered how they had been cut. The digging joined with an older canal running through the city that had obviously dried up when their strange relocation had interrupted its water supply. They had been lucky; the city had landed near a wide, lazy river flowing about a half-mile out of town. The new canal would connect to it, and when all was ready the final stretch would be opened, providing a renewed source of water for this amazing city in the corn.
“That part of the city didn’t come along with the rest,” the old man explained. “I am told that before they could build the new wall, a very large chimera, like a cross between a running bird and a lizard, entered the city. It went on a rampage, crashing through the market and killing a number of people. The warriors were finally able to bring it down. It took over two hundred arrows. The beast’s preserved head is on display at the Sun Temple.””That must have been a surprise. I pity those who perished wondering what demon from hell had been unleashed upon them,” Gonzalo said, crossing himself.
Many Mouths nodded solemnly, whispering a brief prayer of his own in the tongue of his time-lost people. He crossed himself as well, a habit acquired from trying to appease the conquistadors.
“That is why you are being afforded their respect. Three men say that you killed one of those monsters, just you two alone, and they brought the bones to prove it. The necklaces they gave you are powerful talismans. You would be wise to wear them always.”
Gonzalo and Nate looked at each other, then both adjusted their necklaces so that they were displayed more prominently on their chests. Nate edged his horse closer to Gonzalo’s, the two animals were thick as thieves now and didn’t mind the proximity.
“It sure is amazing, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this place,” Nate quietly told Gonzalo in English so that Many Mouths wouldn’t understand if he did manage to overhear him. “We are outnumbered in unknown territory.”
“They seem peaceful enough, now that they have decided I mean them no harm.”
“Look around you, Gonzalo. These people are scared, and scared people are dangerous.”
“They find themselves in a land of monsters, of course they are frightened! They seem to be adapting rather well, actually.”
“Well, I figure we best get clear of here sooner than later. My grandaddy always told me to listen to your gut, and mine is growling like an old farm dog when the coyotes come sniffing around.”
“In this I agree completely! Still, I would see as much as I can before we take our leave. I confess that I sometimes have a penchant for too much curiosity!” Gonzalo admitted, smiling brightly beneath his black, bushy beard.
“Well, you know what happened to the cat,” Nate said gloomily.
“What happened to the cat?” Gonzalo asked, not understanding the idiom from a language that had grown and changed in many ways from that which he had learned in his own time.
“I’ll tell you later,” Nate said, with an amused grin on his face.
Just ahead they saw a group of rather bereft-looking fellows milling around in a swampy mire of ferns and muck near the new canal. What must be the remains of one of the great mounds rose behind them, but just a corner, around forty-five feet high. Steep, grassy terraces rose in a giant’s staircase on two sides. An altar of stone had been erected on the second level down from the top, where a man dressed in a beaded robe was chanting and shaking his fists at the sky. The third side was perfectly flat, a wall of soil, but instead of crumbling upon exposure to the air it was glassy and smooth, with bits of mica glinting in the sunlight.
“Who are those people?” Gonzalo asked their guide.
“They are the priests of the Rattlesnake god,” Many Mouths told them in a low tone, “the majority of their temple was left behind when the city was carried here. That is all that remains. They are very unhappy.”
“Rattlesnake, huh? Not my favorite critter,” Nate said.
“They sometimes make human sacrifices to Rattlesnake,” Many Mouths said. “They urge a serpent to bite a person many times. These unfortunates are not volunteers. A venomous snakebite is a painful way to die; I have seen it happen in my travels.”
“As I feared, these must be kin to those bloodthirsty Aztecs. Barbarians!” Gonzalo spat on the ground. “And yet, what was de Soto? And my own countrymen? No better.” His face grew dark with gloom even in the late-morning light.
“You are better than them, Gonzalo. You have repented and are doing your best to make amends,” Nate told him. The truth was, Nate was a bit worried about his traveling companion, the man’s mood swung like a grandfather clock’s pendulum. He hoped the Spaniard would stabilize and not lose his composure at a critical moment. As a career soldier, Nate knew it was vital that the man fighting beside you have his mind on the job.
“Your saying so means much to me, Nate, thank you.” Gonzalo was genuinely grateful to be treated as a decent man once again. He hoped he would continue to earn such praise. As they continued on the footworn path, something caught his eye and he frowned. “Look! In that pit just over there. Something is moving.”
“Rattlesnakes! Lovely,” Nate said, his face drawn into a disgusted scowl.
“They have been collecting them, making ready for a great sacrifice. They will ask their gods to return their temple to them,” Many Mouths said, a trace of distaste in his usually neutral tone.
“It is an abomination against God,” Gonzalo said with contempt. “These blood-thirsty heathens should be stopped before more innocents are harmed.”
“Alas, such is the tradition here. The Sun Priests are the city’s rulers, for the present in any case, and they also practice human sacrifice when it suits them. Only the followers of the Raven Priestess do not. Her ways respect the sanctity of living things.”
Nate heard a familiar sound close by, the gut-twisting staccato of a snake’s rattle. He looked down to see a big diamondback had managed to crawl out of the pit. The serpent was considering striking at Gonzalo’s horse, which had unknowingly trod too near. Instinctively, Nate’s hand went to his bullwhip where it hung from Poppy’s saddle. With a flick of his arm and a deafening snap, the creature was cut in two; another lightning-quick snap removed its head from the front half, just behind the eyes.
“I’m a bit rusty. Should’a had that head off on the first strike,” Nate said.
Gonzalo’s eyes were wide. “What? That was incredible! What skill! Thank you, Nate! You most certainly saved Flavio’s life!”
“I had a lot of practice out in Texas when I was a young’un. Most of the time a snake will leave you alone, but every now and then you get an ornery one. That one was fixin’ to strike. Only one thing to do then is the old snap-ola!”
Their silent Sun Warrior guards had seen what had happened. Smiles now split their stony faces. Nate tipped his head in their direction. “Just doing my duty, folks.”
“I fear you have made an enemy today, Nate.”
Many Mouths motioned with his jaw toward a group of the Rattlesnake Priests running toward them, shouting angrily. Their faces were painted with scales and fangs, lending them a decidedly grisly demeanor. Nate and Gonzalo both drew their horses back, making ready to either fight or ride away. The guards decided that for them. They picked up the pieces of the dead viper, still twitching its snaky muscles as the last of its life drained away, and threw them at the oncoming priests while spitting in disgust.
“No love lost between these fellows,” Nate observed.
Their guards had now drawn stone axes, fearsome-looking weapons of keen craftsmanship, despite the primitive material. The Rattlesnake Priests were still shouting and gesturing angrily but were in retreat, looking back over their shoulders with smoldering glares at the strangers who had destroyed their holy creature.
“I’m beginning to like this town! The people sure are friendly!” Nate announced cheerfully in Spanish.
Many Mouths laughed aloud at his sarcastic jest, but Gonzalo frowned.
“I think I can do without seeing all the sights now, Nate. You were right. We had best leave this place as soon as we can. Many Mouths, how long are we expected to stay here?”
“Please, my friends, don’t let those fools frighten you away! There is some good here, too, and I believe your very presence could be a boon to those who wish for a peaceful life. I must take you to see the Sun Priests, and the Raven Priestess would meet you as well. You see, the sun now rises above the Temple of the Raven instead of where it should above the Sun Temple. This has made the Raven sect strong and weakened the Sun Priests. It is a time of change. Forces are in motion.”
“The sun doesn’t rise where they think it should. No wonder the people are fearful,” Gonzalo mused.
“Lovely,” Nate said, his voice bitter. “We’re in a nation undergoing a power struggle. That always makes for a good time.”
“Indeed, there are dangers all around us. I pray that the Lord will have mercy on us all.” Gonzalo looked to the sky for succor, praying silently that the Lord would let him live long enough to make amends for his past transgressions.
They were in the shadow of the Sun Temple now, a welcome relief from the baleful noon-day sun, which felt undeniably hotter than the friendly old Sol of their own times. Looking up from the bottom, the structure’s true enormity gained dizzy immediacy.
“It’s like a pyramid of Egypt straight out of the history books,” Nate breathed in wonderment.
“Gods of The Sun can be found in many lands,” Gonzalo said, his voice low with disapproval. “They often thirst for men’s blood.”
“This just keeps getting better and better,” Nate said, hiding his growing unease behind his dry brand of humor.
They came to a precarious-looking stairway of timbers leading up to the temple at the summit.
“Our destination,” Many Mouths announced, gazing up at the towering heights. “I must ask my friends here to help me. The climb is too much for my old bones to make on my own.” Two of their three guides came to his side, smiling and laughing as they gently took his arms in support. They were handsome fellows, a bit taller than the locals, and very fit. They exuded friendliness, and both Gonzalo and Nate were drawn by their easy smiles and amiable ways.
“It’s too steep for the horses,” Gonzalo observed.
“I am highly disinclined to leave Poppy behind,” Nate said. “Do we really have to go up there?”
“The Sun priests request it,” Many Mouths replied, as if the necessity should be obvious. “Our friend T’cumu here can mind your horses; he has a special way with beasts. They will be in good hands, and no ill will come to them.” He turned away from them then and began to climb.
The one called T’cumu, a man in his early twenties and the youngest of the three, came to Gonzalo smiling reassuringly and speaking softly in the tongue they almost shared. Gonzalo spoke to him briefly while gesturing toward the animals while the young man nodded emphatically, clucking what must be understanding. Reassured, Gonzalo drove his lance deep into the soft, grass-covered earth. He carefully tied a long lead to it, which he connected to Flavio’s halter. Heaving a heavy sigh, Nate dismounted and followed suit. Many Mouths was spryer than he had been letting on; the crafty old fellow was already a good thirty-feet above them.
Muscles groaning after a long morning in the saddle, they began the arduous climb. Halfway up they paused for a breather, using the break to reconnoiter the city spread out below them.
From their elevated vantage point they could see beyond the timber walls enclosing the main city. Hundreds of men were digging the new canal, across fields of low-growing ferns, toward the wide river flowing lazily a half-mile distant. The slow-moving green waters sparkled beneath the potent sunlight like gleaming emeralds. The diggers were close to their goal; within a day the new canal would be ready to open, once again providing water to the city. It was a daunting task, and they couldn’t help but be impressed with the city folks’ skill and ingenuity.
“These here are a different type of injun than most I’ve seen,” Nate commented, scratching his stubbled chin. It wasn’t a judgment, just an observation. “The Cherokee were organized like these folk, they built towns and raised farms—at least they did—” His voice trailed off, and a sad look came across his face. Gonzalo noticed, but didn’t press the man on the subject.
“These remind me of the Aztecs more and more. Let us be very careful.”
“You’re preaching to the choir, brother. Since we got here I’ve been looking over my shoulder so often I’m getting a crick in my neck. I don’t trust these city fellas one itsy-bit.”
As they neared the top they saw a line of men in opal-and-agate necklaces draped over canary-yellow-tinted robes awaited them, staring solemnly down at their progress.
“Maybe we’ll be in time for tea,” Nate mumbled. Climbing was thirsty work.
Reaching the top, Many Mouths spoke to the waiting priests, then motioned for Nate and Gonzalo to follow before he disappeared over the lip of the hill.
Nate and Gonzalo smiled politely to those gathered. The priest’s faces remained impassive. Apparently, smiling was not in fashion.
They followed Many Mouths along a path of flat, polished, river stones, crossing the wide, grassy top toward the temple proper. It was one of the largest buildings either of them had ever seen, nearly rivaling a Christian cathedral. The front door was big enough for an elephant to pass through. Before they were allowed in, a group of priests surrounded them with smoking smudge sticks.
“It’s quite all right,” Many Mouths told them. “They will cleanse us with the holy smoke before we enter their sacred place.”
“I would have preferred a hot bath,” Nate grumbled, the cloying scent of sweet and bitter herbs threatening to make him sneeze.
“In the Holy Catholic Church our priests use incense in much the same way, to purify us in the presence of God,” Gonzalo told him, not at all bothered by the thick reek.
Once inside it took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the dim interior. The spacious hall was filled with over a hundred people. Many were Sun Priests and their warriors, but there were what must be other affiliations represented as well, all dressed in a riot of colors and ornaments. One fellow was wearing a mask made of deerskin, antlers sprouting from the top of his head to macabre effect. Nate felt like he was back in New Orleans at Mardi Gras. Across the room he noticed a group of very tough-looking men with black feather designs painted on their faces. They were wearing black tunics with formidable-looking stone axes hanging from braided leather belts. Raven Warriors, perhaps?
Many Mouths began talking, going on for what felt like a very long time, while Nate and Gonzalo stood near the doorway bearing the scrutiny of hundreds of eyes. Eventually Many Mouths fell silent. Then, an elderly Sun Priests spoke for yet another long time. Nate was sure he must be the number one chief at this powwow. There would be no rushing that one. He saw Gonzalo was shifting his weight from foot to foot. They were both dog tired and just hanging on until it was over.
Eventually the formalities were finished and the meeting broke up into casual chatter. For the most part, expressions softened around the room, and several people actually smiled and made signs of welcome to their foreign guests, which Nate and Gonzalo responded to with gratitude, and more than just a little relief.
One of the Sun Warriors—young, but obviously of high rank—was laughing and pointing rudely at Nate. His companions laughed along, all staring openly at their Texan visitor.
“What did he just say about me?” Nate asked Many Mouths.
The old man gave him a funny little smile, but just shook his head without answering. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to interpret it.
“Come on, what did he say? I know he was talking about me!” Nate pressed the issue, feeling annoyed at what he was sure were mocking looks.
Then Many Mouths told him, in reluctant tones.
“He says that the little, bushy-faced dark one at least looks nearly like a real person, but the tall, pale one with the wolf eyes must be a giant maggot grown in some enormous beast’s turd, that has learned to walk like a man.”
“Son of a . . .” Nate growled under his breath.
“Nate, please do not get angry,” Gonzalo hissed in his ear. “Remember that these people are still a simple folk, despite all their trappings of civilization. They cannot even read and write. They have never before seen a person such as you. You must forgive them, they are like children.”
Nate scowled deeply, but made himself look away. And here he had been worried about Gonzalo losing his composure when it was he himself who had just about flown off the handle at a very inopportune time.
“Yeah, you’re right, but I’d sure like to take a willow switch to that boy’s ass and teach him some damn manners,” Nate hissed, still annoyed, but hiding it from their hosts. He made himself take a deep breath. This kind of tired had a way of making him irritable. “You are the voice of reason, Gonzalo. We had best get along. There’s a lot more of them than us.” He forced his expression to brighten up, and favored the rest of the gathering with a courtly smile.
More people who looked like they must be high-ranking citizens were entering the room, come to look at the strangers now that they had been deemed suitable for continued hospitality. Gonzalo tried out some of the city language he had picked up from listening to the goings on, much to the delight of those crowded around them.
Nate was a head taller than nearly everyone else and used this advantage to peer about. Nate saw a woman off in a shadowy corner, just visible under the dim light filtering down from smoke holes in the vaulted ceiling. She was standing among the dark-painted warriors he had seen earlier. Trying to look casual, he sauntered through the crowd, smiling and nodding to all he passed, in order to get a better view. The woman was dressed in dark robes to match the men’s tunics, and her skin was painted indigo from head to toe. There was a complex black design across her face; the wings of a raven sweeping down from her forehead to spread across her cheeks.
“You must be the Raven Priestess,” Nate whispered.
Despite the poor light and the odd decorations, Nate could see that she was a true beauty, her features finely sculpted with high cheekbones and a proud, pointed chin; a picture of noble bearing. He couldn’t help but stare and soon realized she was returning his gaze. Her eyes seemed made of smoky amber, flashing points of light in the dimness. Nate was utterly mesmerized. He felt those sorcerous eyes were drawing him into a secret realm lying beyond their dusky-gold gates.
“She is lovely, isn’t she?” Gonzalo’s voice near his ear broke him from the spell.
A confused “Huh?” was all Nate could manage.
“Yes, I noticed her, too, but it is you who she watches. We have perhaps found a Cleopatra here in this Land of Pharaohs. Seldom have I seen such beauty!”
“Oh. That woman over there? I hardly noticed,” Nate told him nonchalantly, now too embarrassed to give her more than a furtive glance.
Gonzalo was sure that Nate was an accomplished liar when he wished to be, but the words rang false; he was obviously not himself. The woman had an effect on him, indeed!
“You are not fooling me, my friend. It is plain to see that you fancy her. I think perhaps she fancies you, too. She is still watching,” Gonzalo said, teasing.
Much to his own surprise and his companion’s delight, Nate’s face grew hot and was flushing noticeably. He made himself turn away without risking another look at the dark goddess in the shadows.
“Come on, knock it off, will ya?” Nate pleaded in low tones, giving Gonzalo a warning with a light nudge of his elbow. “You’re just imagining things.”
“Certainly, you must be right. What does a simple seeker of fortune such as me know of love? Well, believe it or not, I was once a young man full of fancy! Many a dark-eyed beauty such as she followed me away into the shadows. One must only hope such indiscretions of youth will not be considered sins of a grievous nature.”
“Didn’t you tell me you were fixin’ to become a priest? You sure ain’t talking much like one.”
Gonzalo grinned, delighting in his usually cool and collected companion’s sudden discomfiture.
He had enjoyed enough fun at his Texan friend’s expense, and the crowd was murmuring at the arrival of a group of servants carrying baskets and various clay pots.
“Come along now. There will be time for the elation and misery of love later, perhaps. I believe it is now time to eat,” Gonzalo said, gently guiding a still-discomfited Nate toward the gathering crowd.
The food was arranged on a wide table in the center of the room. Nate and Gonzalo were glad to find fresh persimmons and wild blackberries, but there wasn’t much else that suited their palates. The fare was either too bland, or too heavily flavored with herbs and spices they were unaccustomed to. Nate found a passable jerky to chew on, preferring to imagine it was beef or venison rather than ask its true origins. Their new friends, the three tribesmen, had demonstrated that they were willing to eat anything they could catch, including the reptile-like creatures that replaced mammals in these lands. Gonzalo liked the cornbread well enough, but it was too chewy for Nate’s tastes. To top things off there were clay pitchers of cool, fresh water and wicker plates of delicious roasted pecans dipped in honey which they eagerly devoured.
The end of the meal signaled the end of the party. They had managed to eat their fill, but all in all they still felt a bit unsatisfied despite this being the best food either of them had eaten in weeks. That was the trouble with foreign food, it was just no replacement for good home cooking. Many Mouths ushered them out of the great temple hall , where they took a moment to blink their eyes back into enduring the glare of the afternoon sun. Everyone except their small party remained within to do God only knew what, while they made their way back down the perilously steep stairway. The horses were indeed safe, their attentive caretaker feeding them berries and grinning like a happy fool.
“I will take you to our next destination, then on to your rest,” Many Mouths told them upon reaching the bottom. Nate and Gonzalo both resisted kissing the level ground in relief. A few minutes later they came to a spacious, grassy field enclosed by a woven-branch fence, with a simple thatched-roof shed at one end.
“I taught them what was needed,” Many Mouths said with a hint of pride. “They don’t know how to keep beasts of burden, only dogs.”
They entered through a simple gate, following Many Mouths to the shelter.
“Here Gonzalo, I think you will be pleased to meet another old friend,” he said as they entered the shady darkness through a wide doorway. A loud snort emanated from within. Gonzalo followed, then exclaimed with delight, “Bella!”
Nate joined them to find Gonzalo fussing over a jet-black mare. She was a bit skinny, but otherwise looked to be in good shape.
“I am so happy she survived! Bella belonged to one of my former comrades, an evil man to be sure, but he did treat his animal well.”
He then fell into soothing nonsense syllables since the mare had grown a bit skittish with strangers present. Many Mouths produced a brush and began to work it down her coat which calmed her quickly.
“I rescued her after the Spaniards fled,” he explained. “The city folk let me keep her. She is yours now if you wish, Gonzalo. I have no real use for her, beyond a certain fondness.”
Nate led Poppy over to introduce her to the new animal, which went smoothly. These were all well-trained, battle-hardened horses, so Nate didn’t expect much trouble. The mares would naturally fall into a herd behind proud, strutting Flavio. Nate’s maternal grandfather had been a horse breeder and had taught Nate the art from an early age. The Texan had already concluded that he would work to breed horses for their strange new existence, and the more bloodlines to draw from, the better. Finding Bella greatly helped decrease their chances of running into trouble later on from inbreeding.
At some point, they would be able to barter from their brood for horses from the Cherokee settlements, assuming it would ever be safe for Nate to visit those again. He held out hopes that the chief he had offended would let bygones be bygones. After all, he hadn’t actually done anything more with his daughter than a little harmless smooching! It had been her idea, too!
Unable to contain himself any longer, fair Flavio pushed his way into the already crowded stable and nuzzled Bella, who returned his affection with a pleased snort.
“Flavio knows this one well. He has waited long to plant his seeds in her fields!” Gonzalo said with a knowing wink. It seemed he had a rather uncanny way of knowing what Nate was thinking about.
“That’s good. We’re going to need more horses, and this is a fine start.” Nate stroked the pretty black mare gently behind her ears and received a nice, sloppy lick to his face in reward for his efforts, which made them all laugh.
Once they had taken care of their animals’ needs, an exhausted Nate and Gonzalo followed Many Mouths to their quarters, a short walk down a hard-packed dirt thoroughfare between white, clay-stuccoed buildings. The little house was spartan, but clean. There was an open common area with a cookfire and water basin, two sleeping alcoves on opposite sides of the room, and a commode in the back, consisting of a deep hole in the ground. It was palatial luxury to the weary time travelers, and within minutes snores could be heard from the alcoves.
Many Mouths smiled, and closed the wattle door on his way out.
The Eleventh Plague
The next morning Many Mouths arrived well before sunrise, bearing a surprisingly decent breakfast of fruits, nuts, and a bland, but rib-sticking corn mush.
“So, what’s happening today?” Nate asked, his voice still thick from sleep. Somewhere in the back of his head he hoped the Raven Priestess would be part of it, but quickly quashed that thought. He had enough troubles as it was.
“The Sun Warrior captain wants a demonstration of horseback riding. Please follow me down to the paddock.” Many Mouths ducked out the door before either of them could say anything.
“That’s just swell.”
“After that, do you think we should leave? I feel I have seen quite enough, and I wonder how long their goodwill toward us will last. . . .” Gonzalo said grimly.
“Yeah, we’d best git. Goodwill never seems to stick to me long,” Nate replied with a wan smile as he pulled his boots on.
They arrived at the paddock just as the sun rose behind a large pyramid, surrounding it with an amber glow. Many Mouths pointed it out as the Temple of the Raven. So, that’s the home of the Raven Priestess, Nate thought as he squinted into the growing light. There were a great many people lining the fence: high-ranking citizens, warriors, and priests from the many different sects in front, commoners behind.
“Looks like we got us a real rodeo,” Nate commented as they entered the paddock.
There was a small group of Sun Warriors waiting near the stable shed. The three horses stood in a tight group supervised closely by a proud and grinning T’cumu. Flavio made a valiant point of always keeping himself between the city strangers and his mares.
“I expect we’re going to be proud uncles soon, Gonzalo.”
“Yes, I’m sure that Flavio has had his way by now. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, Poppy can’t live forever, I might as well grow her replacement up now. The way I figure, this crazy new world we’re in needs more horses, needs them badly. My grandaddy was a horse breeder and he taught me a thing or two. These are all fine animals; we should do well.”
“A most excellent idea, Nate. The noble horse improves any land with its presence.”
Many Mouths walked ahead of them to speak to the warriors. He returned shortly with instructions.
“First, they ask that you perform a demonstration for them. I have already saddled your horses for you.” There was a slight furrow on the old gentleman’s sun-dried brow. Gonzalo knew that look and guessed that there would be more to it than that.
Nate gave Gonzalo a questioning look and cast a glance at the saddles.
Gonzalo stepped close to whisper to him in English, “Many Mouths is good with the animals. I taught him how to tend them, and he has passed those skills on to our young friend here. He is experienced, and will have done it right.”
Even so, Nate took a minute to double-check the various buckles and straps, finding that their wise-man had indeed done a proper job of it. They both mounted and set off at a trot. Once clear of the knot of staring warriors, they urged their horses on to faster gaits. They circled around the paddock several times, enjoying the murmur of excitement the crowd made at the spectacle of men riding animals. Finally, they had a bit of a race down the length of the enclosure, in which Flavio beat Poppy by a length, despite her longer legs.
“He’s a speedy one, all right, and a fast mover with the ladies to boot,” Nate told Gonzalo, who laughed and patted his stallion affectionately on the neck.
“A quality I believe you share with him,” Gonzalo said, with a wry wink.
“Me? You have me mistaken friend, I am the shy retiring type,” Nate protested, keeping his face the very picture of innocence. “Besides, women are nothing but trouble, and I already have plenty of that.”
Gonzalo nodded, a knowing grin on his face.
Many Mouths approached them. He looked worried. Gonzalo sighed. There would be more to this than just a demonstration, as he had feared.
“The Sun Warriors have asked that you teach one of them to ride. The young captain there.”
Nate and Gonzalo looked over to see the same cocky fellow who had insulted Nate at the temple, his companions slapping him encouragingly on his bare back as he laughed, his voice brimming with over-confidence.
“Shit,” Nate muttered.
“Nate, I am sorry, but we had best not use Flavio. He is too high-spirited, and might hurt the fellow.”
“As much as I’d like to see that, you’re right,” Nate growled. “Let’s go with Poppy. She minds me pretty well, and I can control her from the ground. I’ll just circle him around the paddock a few times and hope that’s enough for one day.”
A few minutes later they had managed to get the muscular young warrior up onto the saddle, where he preened and waved to the crowd, who cheered him on raucously.
“All right then, Many Mouths, tell him that I’ll be guiding the horse. He just needs to hang on to the saddle horn and not fall off.”
Many Mouths relayed this to the captain, who acted as if he didn’t hear a thing.
“Okay, Poppy, walk now girl,” Nate said gently. He wanted to use the lead rope, but was sure the proud warrior would protest. He would try to make it look like the cocksure fool was in control. Nate fell into an easy gait and Poppy followed. They paraded past the crowd, where the young captain could enjoy the adoration of his admirers.
Nate kept a close eye on both horse and rider. He shortly became aware that the man wanted to go faster. He was barking orders in his unintelligible language, and rocking his body back and forth in the saddle like a petulant child.
Nate sighed and clucked at Poppy to go into a trot. Poppy obeyed, making a wide circle around her dismounted master while the crowd cheered. Nate guided them back toward the shelter, hoping that his student was satisfied with the jostling pace.
The Sun Warrior shouted at Many Mouths and made some unmistakable gestures.
“He wants to go faster still, like you did,” Many Mouths told him with a helpless shrug.
“I figured as much. All right, tell him we can go a gait faster, but that will be all for the first lesson. If he wants to, I’ll teach him more, but this is enough for one day.”
Many Mouths relayed this, which caused the warrior to scowl haughtily. This was a fellow who was accustomed to getting his way.
Nate caught Poppy’s eye, and gave his head a firm shake, along with a certain click of the tongue. Poppy got the message, and headed off at a canter. The warrior nearly fell off but remembered to hang on to the saddle horn. Poppy took him down the length of the field, then, at Nate’s whistle, brought him back. They were about halfway home when the proud rider decided he wanted to go faster still and began shouting and bouncing in the saddle. Nate ignored him. Poppy snorted with irritation, but didn’t speed up. This made the petulant fellow angry, and he began slapping her on the neck.
“Don’t do that!” Nate yelled, Many Mouths echoing him in the warrior’s own tongue. The haughty captain ignored them and continued to slap at Poppy.
“Jesus Christ! Tell him she’s going to throw him off if he keeps that up!” Nate shouted.
Many Mouths dutifully translated, but it was too late. Poppy had taken all she was going to take and began bucking. Nate and Gonzalo broke into a run, hoping to get ahold of her before she succeeded in unhorsing the large irritant on her back.
Alarmed, the waiting warriors fell in behind them, hooting and hollering, which was guaranteed to make things worse. They didn’t arrive in time. In ancient equine tradition, the proud appaloosa dumped the Sun Warrior smack-dab in a pile of fresh manure.
Nate stopped running, hands raising in a gesture of disgusted resignation.
“Now it’s a rodeo!” he exclaimed with false good cheer.
Gonzalo went to pull the fallen man to his feet, but the captain was in a rage. He shook off the helping hands, rudely shoving the Spaniard away. Nate had Poppy’s lead now, trying to settle her down. The captain stalked toward them, face scarlet with anger. Apparently his pride had suffered grievous injury and the damn fool didn’t realize he was lucky that was all that had. Nate saw him coming, and stepped between him and his horse. The Sun Warrior had his hand on the fearsome-looking stone ax at his belt. He paused a few feet in front of Nate and began shouting. Many Mouths, face drawn with worry, translated.
“He says that he will now kill your animal for embarrassing him.” Many Mouths voice was thick with fear.
“Tell this ass-hole he’ll have to kill me first and I don’t intend to go easy.” Nate met the man’s hostile, dark eyes with his own steely-blue. The Sun Warrior captain was no easily-cowed commoner; this would-be warrior to warrior with no backing down.
The Sun Warrior spat at him, drew his ax, then began to run forward, intending to knock Nate out of the way as he rushed the horse. The belligerent fellow wasn’t accustomed to resistance, and Nate was ready. At just the right moment the Texan dodged in low, punched the captain hard in the gut, then tripped him as he doubled over, sending him rolling head over heels onto the ground. The prideful Sun Warrior ended up face-down in the muddy grass, gasping for breath, the wind thoroughly knocked out of him. Nate couldn’t help but smile.
“How do you like them apples, Chief?” he asked in a taunting tone that would need no interpretation.
The rest of the Sun Warriors in the paddock, eight of them in all, drew their stone axes and bone knives. At least ten more were climbing the fence to join them. Nate drew his saber just as Gonzalo arrived at his side, his fine Spanish longsword unsheathed and ready for battle. Nate took a second to give his comrade a questioning look.
“You don’t have to make this your fight, Gonzalo.”
“It would dishonor my name and family if I were to let you face them alone, my friend.”
To both their surprises, T’cumu joined them on Nate’s other side, a wicked-looking polished-stone dagger in his hand. His bright, brown eyes met theirs and he gave them an encouraging grin, then pointed at the Sun warriors with his chin. I stand with you! The silent message was loud and clear. Nate and Gonzalo both grinned back, realizing that their youthful-looking new friend was in top physical condition and carried himself like a well-seasoned fighter— his help would be most welcome! The three of them then turned their full attention to the approaching Sun Warriors, grimly determined and without fear, come what may.
Just as their foes were about to charge, a shrill, piercing whistle sounded nearby, making everyone freeze in place. A woman stepped forward, pulling an indigo cloak off of her head and shoulders. It was the Raven Priestess. Around her, twelve of her warriors did the same, all of them seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Nate was sure he hadn’t seen them amongst the crowd. Had they been there all along, watching them? Nate shook his head, his attention once again captured by the woman’s mysterious, peregrine beauty, despite the present danger.
With a subtle gesture of the Raven Priestess’ graceful hand, the Sun Warriors lowered their axes and stepped back. She did the same to Nate, Gonzalo, and T’cumu, who found themselves unquestioningly sheathing their blades, such was the power of her presence. Her eyes seemed to hold an inner fire, smoky-amber irises flashing with specks of gold in the morning light.
The prideful captain brought himself to his feet. Most of the fight had been knocked out of him, but he took a moment to give Nate and Gonzalo a long, simmering glare before stalking away. The Sun Warriors grumbled under their breaths as they followed him out of the paddock, abjectly trooping across the long morning shadows toward their massive temple. The crowd of onlookers had already dispersed completely, evaporating with what was left of the morning mist.
The Raven Priestess, accompanied by Many Mouths, approached the three visitors to the city. Nate’s breath caught in his throat as she came closer. She was a graceful spirit of the twilight come forth to lend her dark beauty to the land of the day; the morning light catching in her long black hair made it gleam like polished ebony.
“The Raven Priestess commends all of you for your bravery,” Many Mouths told them, having returned to his usual, calmly cheerful demeanor. She favored them all with a dazzling smile, then took another two steps closer to Nate, close enough that he could see her breathing and feel its soft breeze on him.
She spoke directly to him, locking her flashing amber eyes to his steel gray ones in a gaze that made Nate tremble. She began to speak softly, her words the music of dawnbirds. Many Mouths stood at their side, translating for both of them as rapidly as he could.
“What is your name?” she asked him.
“Nathan Theseus Tucker, a son of the Republic of Texas and lately retired from the US Army.” The words stumbled out by rote from lips grown slightly numb.
She laughed and asked again, “What is the name you go by in your daily affairs?”
Nate managed a small smile and told her “My friends call me ‘Nate’. You can call me that, too, if it pleases you, good lady.”
More laughter. “I am glad that we are friends, Nate!” Even before Many Mouths could translate he heard her say his name, pronounced perfectly. It made him shiver. Tarnation, how could this woman muddle his head up so? He managed a slight bow, which seemed to please her as once again he was transfixed by her smile. She began talking again, Many Mouths dutifully interpreting.
“I saw you fight the Sun Warrior Captain. He is a mighty warrior, few would dare, and yet you faced him down without fear, all to protect your animal companion, putting yourself in danger for its sake. You value the creature so very highly?”
“I do. There was no way I was going to let that popinjay lay a hand on my Poppy. That horse has been a better friend to me than most men have. I’d do anything to save her life.”
This made her nod thoughtfully.
“I, too, value life, and not just human life, but all life. It is good to meet a man that comes from those future worlds who feels the same way. You give me hope, Nathan Theseus Tucker.” Nate’s eyebrows raised as he distinctly heard her say the full name he had given her first, pronounced perfectly. She caught that look of astonishment and laughed again, a sound like melodious bells on the fresh morning breeze. Then, to his utter confoundment, she stepped in closely so that her chest touched against his, and then put a soft, cool palm to his hot, blushing cheek, which she stroked gently for a moment.
“It is very good to have a friend like you, Nate.”
With a last, small smile that spoke of regret, the Raven Priestess broke off the contact and rejoined her waiting men. She whispered something to her always attentive captain, turned, and glided away, her feet seeming to barely bend the dew-heavy grass. Two of her warriors automatically fell into step behind her. She didn’t look back, but Nate couldn’t help but stare at her, drinking in her lithesome beauty like a man thirsting in the desert who stumbles upon a crystal-clear spring. He watched her until she disappeared from sight into the city’s warren of narrow streets.
Nate didn’t notice his companions give each other wry, knowing looks, T’cumu grinning so broadly Gonzalo feared his face might split in two. The Spaniard kept his amusement to himself this time, allowing Nate his reverie. Ahh, to be young and in love, he thought to himself with a wistful smile. Alas, it seems those days have long since passed me by, and so I remain your faithful and penitent soldier, Oh Lord!
The Raven Warrior Captain spoke with Many Mouths at length, then managed a smile for Nate, Gonzalo, and T’cumu, a rare treat in the City of the Pyramids
“You have shown up the Sun Warriors, and they will not bother you now, at least for a while. She suggests that you leave tomorrow morning. To do so today would make you look cowardly in the eyes of the city folk. Some of these Raven Warriors will remain here to protect your horses from any harm, and the rest will provide you with an escort during your time here, so you may rest easy. The Raven Priestess noticed that the fare served yesterday didn’t please you. She has invited you to go to the market and find whatever food suits you, as much as you want. It is her gift. Later, she will send a cook to your dwelling to help you prepare your meal.”
“That is very kind of her,” Gonzalo said, giving the Raven Captain a polite bow.
“Please tell her we are much obliged,” Nate added, smiling tentatively back at the Raven Captain. All the Raven Warriors were smiling and laughing now. They surrounded the two foreigners and the courageous young tribesman, clapping them companionably on their backs, as soldiers do to their fellow fighting men after a victory.
T’cumu stepped over to them and spoke to Many Mouths in a rapid-fire way that Gonzalo couldn’t follow. The older man listened carefully, smiling. When T’cumu was finished he translated, “He wants you to know that he will also stay here to help guard your horses. He and his brother and first cousin owe you their lives. They have already decided that you should accompany them to their village when you leave the city and asked me to tell you that you may live out your days among them as brothers if it is your wish.”
The young brave eagerly watched their faces for a reaction. Nate and Gonzalo couldn’t help but be moved by their new friend’s generosity, there was nothing to do but smile back and take turns pumping his hand in gratitude.
“It will be our honor to come with you T’cumu, you have our deepest thanks.” Nate told him, translated by Many Mouths, while Gonzalo attempted to say the same in the man’s own language. This made T’cumu smile so brightly it could have melted a glacier.
“At last, we have made some friends in this place,” Gonzalo said happily, elated by the unexpected welcome.
“Yes, at last. Thank goodness for T’cumu and his kin, at least now we have some place to go to next.” Nate said, his voice full of relief. He paused, and then gave Gonzalo a small, wry smile. “It’s just too bad we have to leave the city and its fair people so soon, and just as we were getting to know them!” This remark was in unmistakably sarcastic tones.
Gonzalo had learned to recognize Nate’s penchant for irony. He rolled his eyes at the Texan, looked to God for strength, and then went back to shaking hands with their exuberant new friends and allies.
Accompanied by three Raven Warriors and a group of youthful helpers, students of Many Mouths bearing empty baskets, they soon arrived at the marketplace. The jumble of tents and thatch shelters was a kaleidoscope of colors. Merchants called out their wares and customers haggled for a better deal. Competing groups of musicians waged tuneful warfare on each other and the ears of the bustling crowd, marching up and down the rows with shrill flutes and thumping drums. Many Mouths led them through the chaos to an area where various foodstuffs could be found. People mostly bartered goods for goods, but sometimes they could be seen using seashells as a kind of currency. Despite the press of the crowd, it was fairly cool under the shade of wide awnings erected to keep the cruel sun at bay.
Nate noticed that people were looking at them differently now. Apparently being under the protection of a Raven Warrior did much for their status; they had been promoted from alien outsider to honored guest. More smiles could be found, shy, and fleeting, but sincere. Nate began to notice that many of the women were quite comely, not the goddess-like beauty of the Raven Priestess, but sharing many of her engaging traits. Gonzalo, who saw more than Nate might have guessed, smiled at this and even allowed himself to enjoy the pleasant views, if just a little. After all, he was not a priest just yet!
They entered a row of stalls from whence a plethora of delicious aromas—and a few dreadful stinks—emerged. Nate didn’t see anything he recognized amongst the butchered meats and fish. The resourceful city folk were rapidly adapting to what their new environment provided. Large, eel-like fish with heads that looked to be made of solid bone and rows of dagger teeth stared at him from a bed of leaves with tea saucer eyes. Nate figured he would probably just cut the line if he ever hooked a monster like those! Smoked ribs the length of an entire longhorn bull caught his eye. They looked like they might be tasty, but he could only imagine what kind of a giant lizard they had once belonged to, and passed them by.
Continuing on, Nate paused to peer at a mysterious-looking stack of eight-inch-long objects. They seemed to be fashioned of black lacquered wood, but were shaped very strangely. It took a moment for him to realize they were organic.
“What are those?” he asked, pointing at them.
“Those are the legs of giant spiders found in the forest. They have become quite a delicacy,” Many Mouths explained.
“Spiders? They’re selling bugs for food?” Nate looked around and saw there were more, dragonflies the size of crows that seemed to have been fried in oil, baked cockroaches as big as armadillos, and foot-long, multi-legged sickly white grubs pickled in clay pots. He felt the gorge rise in his throat and looked away.
“During my travels I have seen people eat many kinds of insects: grubs, ants, grasshoppers,” Gonzalo said, examining the grotesque offerings. “The locals always swear they are delicious and very healthy to eat. Perhaps you should try one, Nate? What is that old saying, old even in my time? ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do?’ ” Gonzalo smiled, and gestured toward the spider legs, stacked like kindling on the merchant’s table.
There was an unusual gleam in Gonzalo’s eyes that Nate decided he did not quite trust. Was it possible his new-found friend, the kindhearted seeker of innocence renewed, poor, repentant Gonzalo, was having a jest at his expense?
“Fine, you go first, world traveler. If you eat one, I will.” Not wishing to look the coward, Nate determined that if Gonzalo did it, he would do it, too, even if it was utterly repulsive.
Gonzalo laughed and clapped Nate companionably on the shoulder.
“Are you mad? I would not let such filth touch my lips!” the Spaniard exclaimed, turning up his considerable nose in theatrical disgust. He and Many Mouths continued on through the stalls, sharing a good laugh over Nate’s discomfiture.
“Very funny, Spaniard.” Nate grumbled as he hurried after them, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the grisly fare as he could. “I have a long memory, you know,” he muttered under his breath, vowing to bring about a suitable comeuppance for his droll friend one day.
Eventually they came to an area that sold food of a more palatable nature; squashes, fruits, nuts, potatoes, chili peppers, berries, beans, corn, and a plethora of other enticing and familiar fare. A fat, plucked turkey lay on a flat stone slab looking like it had fallen there from heaven. Both of the travelers felt their mouths begin to water. Nate scratched his stubbled chin, a host of delicious possibilities dancing in his head.
“Gonzalo, have you ever made stew?”
“I’m afraid I am not much of a cook, but I remember a few things my mother taught me.”
“That’s fine. My dear old granny made sure I grew up knowing her recipes, so I could pass them down in the unlikely event I should ever marry. Trust me, we are going to eat well tonight!”
“Excellent!” Gonzalo exclaimed, letting a hand-full of mottled beans run through his hand with visible delight. “What should we put in it?”
“Everything! Well, except for spider-legs, that is. Many Mouths, will you join us for dinner? I guarantee you will find my good old-fashioned southern cuisine a might bit tastier than what they are serving here in these parts!”
“It will be my pleasure. But for now, please excuse me as I must attend to some other matters. I shall leave you here in the capable hands of my assistants; you may trust in them. Take whatever you want, as much as you like, without hesitation. It is the Raven Priestess’ wish. Today the city welcomes you; all its comforts are yours.” With a small bow, he turned and melted away into the crowd.
“Nate, look! Can it be an apple? It smells like one.” Gonzalo held up a rather shriveled looking green fruit.
“Looks more like a crab apple to me. I’ll bet it’s tart. Get some anyway, they’ll be good in the stew.”
Suddenly, a thoughtful look came over him, and he once again began to rub his chin in deep thought.
“Tell you what, Gonzalo, let’s get some of every edible plant we recognize, and even those we don’t. Take twice more of it than we need for today.”
Gonzalo raised a bushy brow. “May I ask why? It would be a shame for fresh food to go to waste.”
“Oh, it won’t. Haven’t you ever had a garden?”
Gonzalo looked bemused for a second, then broke out into a wide grin. “Yes, a garden, indeed! The list of your talents grows day by day, Nate.”
“Aww, shucks, that’s just good old Texas common sense. We need a safe place to hunker down well before it’s time for Poppy to birth that cussed foal your randy lad has planted in her, and most likely Bella, too. I can’t rightly say where I will end up, but for now we have a welcome at T’cumu’s village. That would be a fine place to start some crops growing, and it would be a nice gift for the villagers as well.”
The two of them went to work. They began filling the large baskets with a plethora of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Their guides cheerfully carried the increasingly heavy loads for them. Their Raven Warrior guards just smiled, pleased that their charges had found what they were looking for. Both the men’s mouths were watering, neither had eaten such sumptuous fare in, literally, ages. Tonight they would have a meal to remember.
As the late afternoon gave way to evening, the great temples laid their giant shadows first here, then there, casting whole neighborhoods into deepening gloom. Gonzalo and Nate, bellies full of what had indeed been a most excellent feast, sat on the warm, mud-brick steps in front of their quarters, watching the city folk go about their ways. Some greeted them warmly as they passed by, while others paused to stare at them with open hostility. Either way, the two men from their distant future smiled and nodded greetings, feeling much more self-assured now that the Raven Priestess, definitely a rising power in the city, had spread her ebony wings over them.
“Maybe this place ain’t so bad after all,” Nate mused as he whittled himself a corn cob pipe.
“After the horrors we’ve seen in this bizarre New New World? After the stench of the swamps, and the lack of food decent enough for man or beast, and the fanged monsters the size of houses? No, it is not so bad here.”
Gonzalo might just share his talent for sarcasm, Nate observed approvingly.
The Spaniard pulled thoughtfully on his pointed black beard.
“Still, I feel we cannot put our whole trust in these people. I want to believe the Raven Priestess is a force for good, but somehow such simple terms as good and evil seem an ill fit here. This city is . . . complex.”
“For a man of such strong faith, you can still see the truth in things, Gonzalo. The real world is a good stretch more complicated than what they taught us back in Sunday school. Not as much black-and-white, and a whole lot more gray.”
“Or, perhaps, indigo. Look, one of the Priestess’ warriors is coming this way. And he’s running.”
Nate and Gonzalo stood up, wondering if the man was on a mission that involved them. Breathing hard, the fellow stopped in front of them, his every movement full of urgency.
“Come!” he gasped in heavily accented Spanish. “Help!” he added.
Nate and Gonzalo looked each other, each shrugging. What else was there to do?
They hurriedly collected their weapons, then followed the man as he careened back down the wide, grass and hard-pan boulevard at full speed, dodging lithely through the crowd. Somehow Nate and Gonzalo managed to keep up with him while only jostling a few indignant citizens on their way. They came out into the wide fields at the center of the city, cutting across them at an angle.
“We’re heading toward that Rattlesnake Temple,” Gonzalo shouted to Nate, who with longer legs had outpaced him by a few yards.
“What’s left of it, you mean,” Nate called back.
Up ahead a very large crowd had gathered, several thousand city folk milling about in the purple evening light. The Raven Warrior slipped in amongst them effortlessly, but Nate and Gonzalo had to force their way through the press. Somewhere along the way their guide disappeared from sight. They could see the remains of the Rattlesnake Temple ahead, bathed in torchlight. The dreadful beat of drums filled the sweat-scented air.
There were those in the crowd who stared at the unfolding scene with abject terror, not wanting to watch, but drawn to. Others laughed, and pointed gleefully, enjoying the spectacle. As Nate and Gonzalo pushed their way closer, sometimes those latter types pushed back, angry at having their entertainment disrupted. Nate and Gonzalo spared no pleasantries for them, cuffing them hard in the face or sending sharp elbows into their ribs to move them aside. The sound of the drums was growing louder, they could now see a line of gruesomely-painted Rattlesnake Priests along the top tier of the earthen mound, swaying and stepping to the rhythm like some kind of hellish dance-hall show. Something was going on just below them, but the milling crowd still obscured their view. Finally, breaking through the front edge, they were afforded their first good look at the complete proceedings.
“No!” Gonzalo cried out in anguish.
There were three people bound with ropes standing on the second tier down from the top. They were T’cumu and his kin, the men they had saved from the dragon, the kindly guides who had brought them to the city— their friends! One of them was being dragged next to a wicker basket large enough to hold a man. T’cumu and his remaining kinsman both strained futilely at their bindings, weeping and screaming what could only be desperate pleas for mercy. A Rattlesnake priest in a terrible mask carved like a grinning viper, awaited. He had a live rattlesnake wrapped around his forearm, its head clutched firmly between thumb and forefinger. Nate and Gonzalo both paled at the horrid sight. It was obvious that the priest intended to inject their friend with the angry snake’s dripping fangs.
Just as Nate and Gonzalo were about to surge forward a group of Rattlesnake Warriors jumped down from the first tier, axes drawn, closing the few yards between them rapidly. The priest above took notice of the commotion below and paused, but seeing his guards close with the intruders he continued the cruel ceremony. With a lightning-quick lunge, he thrust the living weapon at the helpless victim, sinking its fangs deep into his bare right shoulder.
“Gonzalo! Keep them off me, I’m going to try for a shot!” Nate shouted.
“It will be a pleasure!” Letting out a surprisingly feral growl, the former conquistador ran straight at the approaching line of enemies, his long steel blade gleaming in the torchlight. Nate drew his pistol, wincing as the Rattlesnake Priest injected their friend again and again, in the arm, in the neck, in the face. The victim’s screams and the mournful cries of his watching loved ones, unable to intervene, provided an eerie melody to the ceaseless beating of the drums.
Gonzalo closed with the Rattlesnake Warriors, cutting off the arm of the closest at the elbow, sending the appendage, which was still holding its stone ax, flying away in a red shower. Another swipe and the throat of the next attacker erupted in foaming blood.
Using the time Gonzalo was buying him, Nate readied his Colt. He knew he had to be quick, but if he went too fast, he would miss what was a very long shot. He made himself breathe evenly as he pulled the action back with a satisfying click. His entire mind focused on the chest of the Rattlesnake Priest, who was laughing as he paused the torture to lift a fresh serpent from the wicker box. Now was Nate’s chance. His gun was pointed directly at the priest’s heart. Breathing out, he pulled the trigger. There was the crack of gunfire and a bright, cherry-red hole appeared exactly where he had aimed. Scarlet liquid began to pump out in spurts, and the man went limp, falling backwards.
Nate saw that Gonzalo was about to be surrounded, there were five men on him. At his feet three lay dead; his friend had done well. Nate picked a target he thought Gonzalo might have lost track of, a man circling to the Spaniard’s left. He blew the back of the warrior’s skull off with the Colt. At this close a range its true power could be used to spectacular effect. Another loud crack of the pistol, and another warrior went down, a dark, steaming hole where his right eye had been. Gonzalo sliced another man’s hand off, then thrust his sword through the heart of the next. Their one remaining foe gaped in abject terror for a moment, then turned and fled. Nate realized that the crowd that had pressed so close to the temple’s remnants had backed off a number of yards, scrambling away from the fight.
“Let’s get up there!” Nate growled, his voice hoarse with wrath.
Gonzalo grinned his approval at the plan. He pulled his sword out of his late opponent, having to place his boot on the corpse’s chest to provide some leverage. He had skewered the man all the way through. Nate could see the bloody tip of Gonzalo’s blade sticking out the back.
There was a stairway nearby, with only a few Rattlesnake Warriors guarding it. Regretfully, Nate holstered his pistol. He really did have to be more thrifty with his remaining bullets. He drew his saber, a fearsome weapon of French manufacture; Nate wisely never put his trust in anything the US Army provided as standard issue. He charged forward, reaching the stairs first. A Rattlesnake Warrior made a lunge and Nate removed his head for him with a mighty slash, sending it rolling down the stairs. Gonzalo kicked it aside like a schoolyard ball as he followed Nate upward.
They met little resistance, the remaining Rattlesnake Warriors stationed on the structure had witnessed the destruction the two foreigners were wreaking on their comrades and had drawn back in fear. Nate reached the tier where the sickening ceremony was being staged. Several screeching priests tried to block his way, he cut them down like a scythe through tall grass. He reached their two bound friends who were as yet unharmed and used his saber’s razor-sharp edge to slice them loose, being careful not to injure them in the process. He recognized their word for thanks and nodded in return. Once they were free, he headed for the wicker box, Gonzalo close behind.
Their unfortunate friend, who had been inflicted with numerous bites, lay face up on the grassy ledge, moaning. Nate knelt down to try to help him. Just then, an enraged Rattlesnake Priest jumped up from behind the basket, a hissing viper clenched in his fist. Before Nate could move, Gonzalo leaped past him. He cut through the man’s hand and the rattlesnake’s head in one furious slice. The Rattlesnake Priest stared stupidly for a moment at the bleeding stump. Gonzalo grabbed him by the hair, and dragged him over to the edge of the big snake basket. Barely letting out a grunt, the sturdy Spaniard dumped him in, head first. The sound of more hissing emanated from within, and the priest’s legs thrashed about almost comically before he ceased to move. Nate and Gonzalo both let out a bitter laugh at the sight, the laughter of men who were fairly sure they wouldn’t live to see another day.
Below, the crowd surged and ebbed, some trying to flee from the fighting, others pressing forward to join in. There was dissension among the mob; it seemed Nate and Gonzalo had both supporters and opponents. Fisticuffs were breaking out between the two sides. At the far edge of the gathering, Gonzalo noticed a phalanx of some thirty Sun Warriors headed their way.
“Here comes trouble,” he said, pointing them out to Nate.
“I wonder what happened to the Raven Warriors? I’d be mighty glad to see them about now,” Nate said wistfully. He had said “warriors” but what he had really thought of was their enchanting priestess. He quickly pushed that unsettling, yet delightful, image out of his head: there was killing that needed doing here.
Behind them, the Rattlesnake Priests on the tier above had gathered their courage and decided to rush Nate and Gonzalo, clambering down the steep, grassy slope. There were around twelve of them, but most were elders of the cult only three were warriors. The two tribesmen they had set free were aware of their advance. They let out blood-curdling howls of rage and charged them, wielding bone knives they had liberated from fallen priests. Nate and Gonzalo joined in, impressed with the skills of their allies, who had already cut down three of the warriors and two more priests. Nate and Gonzalo both closed with the remaining warriors, veterans who battled with impressive ferocity; formidable fighters to be sure. Sparks flew as steel hit hard stone. The city folk weapons might look primitive, but they were solid and devilishly sharp. Gonzalo’s opponent landed an ax blow on his breastplate that might have killed a man without armor. Gonzalo frowned at the unsightly dent it left, then closed with the perpetrator, his sword flashing with blinding speed. Shortly, his foe lay bleeding at his feet.
Nate had also nearly met his match, a big fellow, and fast for his size. The Rattlesnake Warrior’s broad face was painted with garish fangs and scales, an effect which was, to tell the truth, more than a bit intimidating. Nate side-stepped the man’s mighty blows, nipping and poking at him with his keen saber. He drew blood, but the highly experienced warrior was ungodly quick, and none of his attacks landed deeply. Readying for another assault, Nate tripped on one of the fallen, going down hard, landing in an awkward position. His gruesome enemy laughed cruelly and stepped forward, ready to bring his massive stone ax down squarely on Nate’s exposed chest. The Texan raised his blade to block as best he could, bracing himself for a dangerous blow. Before that could happen, a blurred shadow leaped between him and his attacker. There was a surprised gasp, then the big warrior fell sideways, his throat sliced ear to ear.
Nate struggled to sit up, then felt hands behind him, their two tribesmen friends lifting him to his feet. The shadow turned, and Nate was rewarded with an impish grin that made his heart do a flip. His rescuer was the Raven Priestess!
“Hello, Nate!” she said in what could only be affectionate tones, still grinning and plainly pleased to see him again.
“About time y’all got here,” Nate told her, answering her grin with one of his own while his heart sang with an unexpected joy at just the sight of her.
She might not have understood the words, but she definitely received and returned the sentiment. With a quick, heart-melting smile, she then turned to dispatch another foe, driving her long knife deep into his gut. Nate looked on approvingly, here was a woman who could take care of herself!
A mad-eyed priest was making for her from behind, bone dagger raised. Nate ran at him, side-stepping the priestess. He knocked her would-be assailant’s weapon away, then drove his saber straight into his heart.
“There, we’re even,” he said, giving her a chivalrous bow.
The Raven Priestess let out a bird-like laugh full of wildness and joy. Nate didn’t know if it was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard or the most frightening, but he was pretty sure either way he was good and hopelessly smitten. She squeezed his arm briefly, a simple gesture of affection that caused an electric current to course through Nate’s entire body. She saw the utterly entranced look he gave her and laughed again as she playfully gave him a gentle push away. There was still deadly business facing them; gods willing there would be time for whatever this was becoming later.
Nate, coming back to his senses, looked around to see if there was anybody left for him to fight. They had been joined by twenty Raven Warriors, who were busy dispatching any Rattlesnake followers who remained on the structure. That task finished, the fight on the ceremonial mound came to a stop, at least for the moment. Many Mouths had arrived along with the Ravens. The old wise-man was busy trying to help their injured friend while the remainder of the trio looked on, faces drawn with worry. The snake bite victim writhed terribly, his body wracked with pain. It was enough to nearly break Nate’s heart. If only they had gotten here faster! Gonzalo put his hand on Nate’s shoulder, sharing his concern for their suffering comrade. Nate turned away, deciding he had better check out the current situation. His gut told him there was still trouble to be had on this bloody evening in the City of the Pyramids.
The Sun Warriors were gathered at the bottom of the structure. They seemed to be squabbling amongst themselves as to who they should be supporting, many with bows ready, but uncertain who to shoot. There was still a handful of Rattlesnake Priests and supporters left down there, pointing up at those who had ruined their fun and decimated their ranks. They were shrieking in anger, obviously demanding retribution. The Raven Warriors readied their own bows, black-winged faces fearless, ready to fight on.
The sun had set a few minutes before. A nearly full moon was rising through the twilight, casting a spectral-blue glow across the scene. The crowd, many of whom had fled the fighting earlier, had followed the Sun Warriors back to watch what mayhem might unfold next. Beyond them, Nate could see the new canal that had been opened, lunar light dappling its surface with glittering pearls. That was when he saw something move. Something large. A fringed back broke the surface, a familiar sight to anyone who had spent time in the southern swamps. It was an alligator, and a big one to boot.
Nate shook his head to clear it, squinting his sharp scout’s eyes to get a better look. He had never seen one that big. It was at least thirty-feet long! He wouldn’t have believed it if he had been any place else but this never-ending nightmare. Behind it, he saw another break the surface, and another. The water was teeming with them. They had begun to come ashore, proving to be even longer than they looked in the water, over forty feet in length! Their gaping maws could swallow a horse in one bite.
“Many Mouths! Tell everyone to look at the canal! Now!” Nate shouted, then began waving his arms, hooting and pointing like a lunatic. “Gators! Big ones, coming this way!”
Many Mouths left his stricken friend’s side to gape for a moment at the creatures the river had loosed upon them. No one had thought to secure the underwater portion of the canal where it passed through the wall. He shouted as loudly as he could, trying to alert the large crowd, but his warning came too late for some.
The first of the gigantic alligators reached the edge of the crowd, scooping up three spectators in its huge mouth. There was a crunching sound and the horrible screams of its prey dying, crushed in its jaws. There was a moment of silence, as everyone in the area caught their breath—then, pandemonium. Five of the amazingly fast monsters converged on the fleeing crowd in a line, driving them back toward the center of the city. People fell over each other, clawing and shoving their way past their neighbor. Those that weren’t swallowed up were squashed beneath enormous claws.
The Raven Priestess decided to take that rather unlikely moment to make a public address. Her voice was rich and strong, a powerful alto that carried above the growing shrieks and screams with piercing force. The strangely musical sounds stirred Nate’s heart in ways that he had never felt before. Then, as unexpectedly as she had begun, she fell silent, turning her back on the rising chaos below.
“What did she say?” Nate asked Many Mouths.
“She told everyone that the coming of the beasts is punishment for the sacrifice the Rattlesnake Priests made. She said that the gods are angry at them all, and have sent the city to this land of the damned because we spill innocent men’s blood for our own sport and spectacle, not to honor the gods, who do not wish for such evil.”
“The Eleventh Plague—giant crocodiles from their new Nile,” Gonzalo said, thoughtfully stroking his beard. “An appropriate punishment for these cruel pharaohs of the Americas. Perhaps it will make them reconsider their evil ways.”
“Many have come to think like the Raven Priestess. It is a notion that is gaining popularity,” Many Mouths told them. “She can be very convincing.”
“I’ll bet,” Nate said.
The Sun Warriors and the Rattlesnake Priests had ceased their argument during the Raven Priestess’ admonishments. They had much more urgent problems in mind now as more of the massive creatures had emerged from the water and were coming their way. The few remaining Rattlesnake worshipers took a moment to glare at their enemies above, considering a bid to recapture their former temple mound, but it was firmly in enemy hands. They decided to take their chances fleeing the danger along with the crowd, running as fast as they could. It wasn’t fast enough, and several of the defeated cult were consumed by the awesome beasts. The Sun Warriors climbed onto the structure, the Raven Warriors giving them their hands, allies now against this new, overwhelming threat.
Below, bedlam reigned. The crowd ran hither and thither, some escaping the onslaught, some swept up in the crushing jaws of the primeval predators.
“It figures that gators would be bigger than churches in these parts,” Nate muttered.
“I saw crocodiles in Africa in my youth, they were truly frightening in their size and ferocity. Those were but hatchlings compared to these!” Gonzalo exclaimed.
“Wonder if they can climb?” Nate mused, drawing his Colt.
“Of course they can!” Gonzalo said, sighing in resignation. He pointed his bearded chin at one of the approaching monstrosities which had smelled the blood spilled above and had begun to climb, eight-inch-long claws digging deep into the soft, grass-covered earth. Slowly, but surely, it gained elevation. Nate gave his comrade a nonchalant nod as he raised his pistol. Gonzalo set about readying his own firearm. In this case, the former conquistador’s weapon might have an advantage. It wasn’t much for aiming, but if anything got close, it would kick it harder than a pissed-off mule.
“Get the wounded up onto the top level. We’ll try to hold the line here,” Nate told Many Mouths, who dutifully translated. Faces solemn, those gathered followed his command, the Raven Warriors making sure that their Priestess was well surrounded by her guard, men who would lay down their lives for her without question. Nate, much to his surprise, realized that he would do the very same. She looked a bit disappointed at being removed from the immediate action, which made Nate’s heart burn with an even fiercer desire for the strange, heathen, warrior-priestess. Obviously she was an accomplished warrior and a deadly threat to any human foe, but she was far too valuable to risk losing to the monsters they faced now. Nate’s eyes followed her as she climbed up the mound as lightly and gracefully as a bird on a rising breeze.
The last of the climbing Sun Warriors were now just below Nate and Gonzalo, including the young captain that Nate had tussled with. He looked up at Nate, favoring him with a sardonic smile. Nate returned it, offering a hand to help him up, which the younger man accepted. The creature’s head had arrived at the tier just below that which the Sun Warriors had so recently occupied, hissing like a hundred kettles on the boil. Standing proudly at Nate’s side, the Sun Captain let off a shot with his small but powerful bow, striking the monster just below the eye. His men followed suit. Most of the arrows stuck in the thing’s scaled cheek, but didn’t seem to slow it.
Nate stood steady, and took aim. The monstrous gator’s head was swaying back and forth, as if trying to choose which of them to eat first. Nate followed its motion, drawing a bead on the cold, black eye, which was the size of a silver dollar. The thing lowered its head suddenly, and his shot missed, the bullet digging into the horny ridge just above the eye. Irritated, the creature bellowed and breathed hard in hot gusts. They could smell the carrion stench of rotted meat from deep within its gut. Its teeth were at least a foot long.
“Gonzalo, it’s your turn!” Nate said in as calm a voice he could manage, cursing his foul luck.
“I’m almost ready.”
The creature began to lunge upwards, heading directly for the source of its discomfort.
“It’s almost here,” Nate told him in a falsely casual tone, as if discussing an approaching rain cloud. He hurried to ready another shot. The thing moved too damn fast for something so big!
“This is a bit of a tricky thing, Nate. If I don’t do it properly it will be for naught.” Gonzalo replied in equally calm tones. The Sun Warriors let off another volley, but it was just a moment’s distraction. The tip of its scaled nose jutted up at their knees. Nate looked down, straight into its cavernous mouth. He fired again, but to his utmost horror, his pistol jammed. Gonzalo stepped in front of him, sticking the business end of his harquebus directly into the gaping maw, and aimed at the soft, pink tissue at the top of the mouth, just below the eyes. There was a BOOM and a flash, then smoke. The old-style weapon had succeeded; the shot had pierced the thing’s brain. It fell limp, and the beleaguered warriors let out a cheer.
Before they could quite finish their celebratory cry, another giant alligator appeared, just below and to the right of the one Gonzalo had dispatched. On its current course it would reach the Raven Priestess on the top tier. Her warriors were showering it with arrows, to no avail.
Gonzalo was back to fussing with his clunky harquebus for another shot, but Nate knew there was no time. He grabbed the Sun Captain’s muscular, sweat-slick bicep to get his attention and pointed at the big, wicker snake basket, which sat directly above the rapidly ascending gator. The warrior understood, and together they grasped it on each side; it was heavy, since it still contained the twitching and moaning Rattlesnake Priest. Apparently there was still a little life left in him.
“Ho!” Nate shouted, and they both heaved with all their might, tipping the basket and its contents over into the terrible beast’s open jaws.
The priest was pitched out into a feet-first free-fall straight down the creature’s voluminous throat. His head was the last thing to disappear, with a final, strangled scream. The rattlesnakes spilled out onto the wide, glistening tongue, immediately biting it savagely, their instinctive defense against danger. The giant gator moaned like a foghorn, snapping its jaws open and shut with terrible speed and force. The angry clacking of its fangs striking against each other was an eerie echo of the drums that had accompanied the gruesome ceremony. With a shudder, the gator went limp, sliding back down the hill. In a bit of serendipity, it landed right on top of another charging gator, pinning it to the muddy ground. They heard a merry female laugh and looked up to see that the Raven Priestess approved of their ingenuity. She favored Nate with an admiring smile, her smoky-amber eyes catching the moonlight like twin lanterns in the dusk.
The danger had moved on, the remaining monsters having followed the fleeing crowd deeper into the city. The Sun Warriors took their leave then, dutifully going to help as they could. The Sun Captain gave Nate a nod as he left, which the Texan returned, hoping it meant that bygones were bygones, at least for now. They might not be friends when they met again one day, but hopefully they wouldn’t be enemies, either. He climbed to the highest tier to see what he could do to help their injured friend.
The Raven Priestess had joined Many Mouths by the poor fellow’s side, checking his breathing and pulse. Neither were very good judging by the sad expression she wore on her supernaturally lovely face. She consulted with Many Mouths in low, serious tones. At last, the old man looked up at the waiting Nate and Gonzalo, his face deeply lined with sorrow in the fitful light of sputtering torches and pale-blue moon.
“We are too late for this one,” Many Mouths told them, cradling the dying man’s head in his hands, the man’s muscles frequently clenching in terrible spasms, his face swollen almost beyond recognition. His two faithful companions, undoubtedly close kin and sharing a family resemblance, stood to the side, frozen in grief and fear.
The hapless victim of the Rattlesnake Priests began to speak, a faint mumble Many Mouths leaned his head in close to listen.
“What’s he saying?” Nate asked, wishing he knew some kind of cure for snake bites, but even a bonafide doctor probably couldn’t do much at this point.
Many Mouths turned to them, his usually bright eyes dull and near exhaustion Gonzalo worried for the well-being of his long-time comrade. The day had been a bit too much even for as strong a soul as Many Mouths to bear. The old man’s voice was low and devoid of hope.
“He knows he will not recover. He is suffering much. The pain could go on for hours. He wishes to hurry to meet those of his kin who have passed on before him. He wishes someone would help him on this journey.”
“He wants someone to help him . . . die,” Nate said, just to clarify the matter.
“Yes, that is his wish,” Many Mouths replied. “It cannot be his kinsmen here.”
Nate looked over at the two tribesmen who had guided them here. The older of the two spoke then, his voice freighted with anguish, while Many Mouths listened, nodding slowly.
“That is Ni-T’o, this man’s elder brother. He has given his blessings to his brother’s last wishes and begs that we help him.”
Nate looked to the Raven Priestess, who knelt nearby, holding the dying man’s hand. She met his gaze, gleaming tears running down her lovely face. She whispered to Many Mouths, who then translated, “It is what a friend would do, Nate.”
Nate nodded his understanding. Lastly he turned to Gonzalo, a man who in a short time he had come to trust above all others. The Spaniard’s face was pale in the wan light, tears running down his cheeks. Gonzalo met Nate’s eyes, and they locked for a moment. A silent understanding passed between them: Gonzalo was incapable of performing the act himself, nor could he, as a Catholic, voice his approval.
Nate spoke then, his voice graveled with emotion.
“I’ve sent a lot of men to meet their maker, but never a friend. But if it is truly his wish, I could end his suffering.”
Gonzalo lay a comforting hand on his friend’s sweat-soaked shoulder. “I know it disagrees with my faith, but in my heart I feel it would be a mercy. Nate, I know not the will of God. You must listen to your heart,” Gonzalo told him, his voice hoarse with sorrow.
Nate’s face was pale and drawn, a man facing a task that was supremely awful, yet sorely needed.
“Please, Many Mouths, what is this man’s name? I should know it by now, shame on me.”
“He is Fvni, the squirrel.”
Nate looked directly into Fvni’s feverish eyes and said his name, trying to get his attention.
The dying man smiled, reached up, and took Nate’s hand. He squeezed it weakly, then let loose, having used the last of his strength. Nate had seen all that he needed to. He drew his Bowie knife, which was sharp enough to split a hickory log. He gently brushed his palm across Fvni’s eyes, signaling him to close them, which he did. Nate got into position, Many Mouths gripping their dying friend’s head firmly to keep it still, Gonzalo and the Raven Priestess on either side holding Fvni’s hands while his brother and cousin looked on, weeping openly.
“It will be quick,” Nate told them all, his voice like dark water rushing in on a storm tide. Without further warning, he plunged the blade deep into Fvni’s neck and pulled it across, opening the jugular vein, cutting nearly to the bone. There was a last rasp of escaping air, less blood than there should be, then Fvni fell limp, released from his torment.
Gonzalo crossed himself, tears sliding down his weather-worn face as he whispered a fervent prayer to the Lord to have mercy on the fallen’s soul.
“Fvni is going to meet his ancestors now; they come to lead him away,” Many Mouths said, carefully setting Fvni’s head to rest on the soft, green earth.
Nate wiped his knife clean on the grass. “I wish I could have used my pistol. It’s a good, clean death. The thing is I’m getting low on bullets, and there are so many monsters out there. . . . Anyway, I made it as quick as I could.”
“You did well,” Many Mouths told him, “Fvni is grateful to you, he has been freed from his torment, and he smiles upon us. He is leaving this place now, with the spirits of his kin.” Many Mouths was looking up into the air as if able to see things hidden to most eyes, a relieved smile forming on his lips. Nate noticed that the Raven Priestess also watched in the same way and a shiver went down his spine. When it came to such things he had never been a believer, but he had never been an unbeliever, either, and always thought it best to keep an open mind. The thought of poor Fvni going happily to his reward in the company of his ancestors was some small comfort here at the end of a perfectly dreadful evening.
Nate nodded solemnly, and took a deep breath. “We need to leave, too. It’s long past due that we parted from this city, as much as it has grown on me,” he announced, standing up.
“What of the man’s body? Surely we cannot just leave him like this?” Gonzalo asked plaintively.
“I will see that he is laid to rest properly in the fashion of his people. You must go now, do not linger here.” Many Mouths rose to his feet, and gave a series of orders to the group of wide-eyed young assistants that had accompanied him, who rushed away.
“Aren’t you coming with us? Gonzalo asked him.
“No, my friend. Out there I would be a burden, just another old man waiting to die. Here I am useful. I have a purpose. I will stay and do what I can here, assisting the Raven Priestess in her good works. The future peoples will come to parley at some point, and the city folk will need my help, whether they realize it or not.”
“You are a brave man, Many Mouths. It’s a pleasure to know you,” Nate told him. They shook hands, two hands on two, as old friends do.
Gonzalo stepped forward to do the same, his face a picture of sorrow.
“Good-bye again, my friend. When next we meet, I hope it will be in better times.” Gonzalo’s tone was mournful enough to make a carved saint cry.
“It would be hard to find any worse,” the old man answered, then laughed softly, removing some of the regret from the Spaniard’s long face. “Farewell, Gonzalo. I have always known you are a good man. I believe your God knows it, too.” With a soft smile, he let loose Gonzalo’s hands and walked over to where the Raven Priestess stood, observing all with her bright eyes. They conferred in hushed tones. At last, he motioned for them to listen.
“The Raven Priestess will lead you to the back gate. She will see that you pass through freely.”
“Our horses?” Nate asked, worried for their safety and relieved that the giant gators had headed in the opposite direction from their paddock.
“They are here now, as are your belongings.” Many Mouth’s gaze went to where their three horses cantered across the immense field, each piloted by a proud Raven Warrior.
“How—how did they learn to ride?” Nate gasped.
“Why, they watched you! The city folk are a quick study, I find.”
Nate shook his head in wonder as the Raven Warriors gracefully dismounted, all grinning like fools. He silently vowed to never underestimate these people again.
Many Mouths led the somber remainder of their original guides forward. “As I understand T’cumu promised you, he and Ni-T’o will continue to accompany you, escorting you to their home village where you will find safety. Follow them and fear not. You are bound by blood now and may trust them with your lives.” Many Mouths then turned back to the fallen, gently folding his arms across his chest. His bereft kin each touched their lost one gently on the cheek, then beckoned Nate and Gonzalo to follow them down the slope.
Reaching the blood-spattered, muddy ground at the structure’s base they were pleased to see that all of the gear from their quarters, including the baskets of fruits and vegetables, had been brought and secured neatly to their horse’s saddle bags.
Nate and Gonzalo helped their two native companions up onto Bella’s wide back, T’cumu in front and Ni-T’o sitting behind him, the large Spanish saddle providing more than enough room for the slender men. Ni-T’o looked a bit unsure, while his younger cousin seemed quite pleased with the prospect. Gonzalo handed T’cumu the reins but kept the lead rope, fastening it to a strap on the back of Flavio’s saddle, confident the mare would follow obediently.
Once all was ready, the Raven Priestess began walking at a brisk clip, the three horses filing along behind her. Nate took up the rear. Twelve of her warriors accompanied them, flanking the procession on each side, their eyes ever watchful.
Distant screams could be heard from the far side of the Sun Temple, the battle of man against fearsome beast raging on. Undoubtedly, courageous Raven and Sun Warriors were there fighting with all their might, and Nate hoped that they would be able to stem the reptilian tide before more innocents were lost.
When they arrived at the city gate at the opposite end of town from which they had entered, the Raven Priestess stopped and pointed at the heavy door. The two Sun Warriors on duty opened it without question, not a word was exchanged. Gonzalo thanked their mysterious benefactor as he rode past, bowing low as best he could from his saddle. She favored him with a smile, her wide, purple-painted lips like a wildflower blooming beneath the moonlight.
Nate tried not to stare at her siren-like beauty as he rode by, simply tipping his hat and saying, “Ma’am.” She reached up and grabbed his hand. With a click of his tongue Poppy came to a halt. The Raven Priestess pulled him down by the sleeve, so that his eyes were but a few inches from hers, while Nate’s heart pounded in his ears. Taking hold of his face gently in her velvet hands, she kissed him fiercely on the mouth, her tongue pressing inward like a caged, wild thing in search of a path to freedom. He responded in kind, her kiss sending an electric thrill coursing through his veins, an inescapable magnetic force holding them in an intimacy that was both disconcerting and ecstatic. Then it was over, just as quickly as it had begun. Their eyes met for a last, longing moment as she let him loose. She turned away with one last smile, a silent promise that they would meet again. Then, head held high, long, raven-black hair streaming behind her in the night breeze, the Raven Priestess strode proudly back into her city of pyramids, and the great timber gate closed behind her.
Nate gave Poppy a gentle nudge with his knees to get her moving again, following Gonzalo and their guides down the earthen road through fields of tall corn nodding and rustling in the almost cool wind that darkness had brought with it. The blue-tinted moon seemed stuck in the tops of the towering trees of the great forest as if caught in their branche; time had slowed and was almost standing still in the unfathomably ancient epoch they found themselves in. Nate stared into the heavens, his mind far away, whirling and twirling hither and thither through the panoply of stars engaged in their long, slow dance through time and space.
Gonzalo broke the preternatural tranquility with an attention-getting cough. “Well, it seems I was right about you two after all!” Gonzalo told Nate, not missing an opportunity to tease the currently overwhelmed Texan.
“What? That?” Nate visibly shook himself out of his reverie. “Why, that was nothing, just a little peck to thank me for my help.” Nate tried valiantly to keep his face impassive, but he knew he was blushing and couldn’t stop it.
“Oh, really?” Gonzalo’s tone was faux incredulous and filled with mirth, “I was also helping, yet I didn’t receive anything remotely approaching the warm, shall we say affectionate level of gratitude that you did! I told you she favors you!” Gonzalo was having a good chuckle at his friend’s obvious discomfiture, he knew it was terribly naughty of him, but he just couldn’t help himself.
“Yeah, well, maybe so, but whenever a woman gets to thinking she fancies me it means it’s time for me to move on. Yah!” he urged Poppy into a trot to put some space between himself and the laughing Spaniard. The memory of her touch still lingered and Nate wanted more, despite himself. Best to just forget her, but he feared that might be harder than he might like to admit.
With the City of the Pyramids and all its terrors and wonders behind them, they rode on into the darkness, swallowed up by the indigo shadows of the Cretaceous night.