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The Masked Captors
“Harder!” barks the commander, “faster! Remember, swing, slash, jab IN THAT ORDER! If I see any more of you ladies fall behind the motions again, you’ll wish you were just chosen for human sacrifice by the time I’m through with you! Again, on my mark!”
Mazatl groans inwardly. Sweat is pouring down his forehead, and he just wants to go home. He and his warrior-in-training peers have been going through the same moves for hours already. He looks forlornly at the battered practice dummy in front of him. Mazatl assumes that it probably wants this to end just as much as him.
“Ready… Go!” commander Xiuhcoatl’s booming voice breaks into Mazatl’s thoughts, bringing him back to reality.
“Swing, slash, jab! Swing, slash, jab!”
The commander’s orders get faster and faster, and Mazatl feels his arms whir into motion as if they have a mind of their own. He keeps his breaths even and hears the loud sound of one hundred practice swords thumping continuously into one hundred poor practice dummies. A merciful cool spring breeze provides some welcome relief to the burning hot summer day. Mazatl looks around at the clearing where he and his unit train every day. It is a sandy hollow ringed by trees, framed with a bright blue sky, along with the brutally hot noon sun beating down on the young Aztecs. A path at the edge of the clearing to Mazatl’s left is a worn trail that leads through the trees back to the main village. Mazatl longs to be on that path, on his way to the lake for a refreshing swim with his friends. Of course, the young warriors-in-training have been trained extra hard lately because of the current war with the Spanish-
“Mazatl! What’s the matter with you!”
Commander Xiuhcoatl’s harsh voice startles him out of his daydreaming. He realizes despairingly that at some point he stopped doing his moves, and his sword lay uselessly on the ground next to him. Mazatl looks around him and sees that some of the other kids are snickering. He feels blood rush to his cheeks in embarrassment.
“And the rest of you wimps can thank Daydreamer over here for earning you all another round of practice!”
The snickering turns into hateful glares as everyone gets ready for one final bout, thanks to Mazatl. One boy, a bully named Cuetzpallea, turns around and sneers at him.
“What were you thinking about, loser? Your dead daddy?” Cuetzpallea snorts to himself, then adds, “Save your daydreaming for later, when you're with your brother. Oh wait, he’s dead too!”
Now roaring with laughter, Cuetzpallea turns back around. Mazatl tries to keep his anger in check. Cuetzpallea has been a jerk to just about everybody since they were little, and the best way to get him to keep that big, fat mouth of his shut, was to just ignore him. But when he brings Mazatl’s family into the picture, he finds this to be easier said than done. Unable to keep his rage contained, he whispers:
“Hey Cuetzpallea, I want to show you something.”
Cuetzpallea turns around, his big grin still plastered to his face. “Yeah loser?”
Mazatl glances up to the platform where the commander is still lecturing them. At the moment his attention is focused elsewhere. Mazatl decides to make his move.
“Oh, nothing much, just THIS!” Mazatl shouts as he slams the hilt of his wooden practice sword in between Cuetzpallea’s eyes before he has any time to react. He then falls backward into the sand, unconscious and bleeding. Breathing heavily, Mazatl lowers his sword slowly and looks around.
A stunned silence fills the clearing. He suddenly feels self-conscious with the eyes of everybody fixed on him in abhorrence. He nervously looks up to where the commander is standing, fists clenched, face getting redder by the second. Mazatl predicts an ultimatum on the way, and sure enough…
“Mazatl! What- what on earth were you thinking!? How stupid are you!? Attacking your comrade in arms like that! Why, back in my day, if we did something like that, we’d get whipped like there was no tomorrow!”
“I’m sorry sir. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Mazatl replied, feeling truly ashamed. His father taught him from a young age that to have success on the battlefield, one needs to work well with his comrades. One of the many wise insights his father shared with him before he died.
“Well, next time maybe you SHOULD think before you act. Now you must leave, and you are confined to your house for a week.” Commander Xiuhcoatl dismisses Mazatl unceremoniously. “Oh, and send a medic over here when you get back to the village.”
Mazatl makes his way to the village path, head hanging in shame. The injustice of it all! He knew that no amount of punishment would ever stop him from lashing out at people who insult his late father and brother. Mazatl’s father was a brave eagle warrior - like Mazatl dreamed of being one day - who lost his life valiantly defending their clan during a Spanish raid. He was killed trying to save his son and Mazatl’s older brother, Chicahua. Chicahua was a newly inducted eagle warrior who everyone said would be a great fighter one day. He too was killed by the Spanish, as he held their father’s limp body despairingly in his arms. Mazatl blinks back tears as he pictures the faces of his father and brother. Then, he lets anger surge through him as he reminds himself who was responsible for his grief. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. Not for the first time, Mazatl vows that if he ever gets the chance, he will make the Spanish pay for what they did to his family.
Mazatl jumps. He blinks, shakes his head, then looks around. He had been so engrossed in his thoughts, that he had strayed off the path! He looks around at the unfamiliar woods, frightened. He also notices that the sun is already beginning to set, and it is getting dark. The sound he heard sounded like a branch snapping, probably from some sort of animal, Mazatl tries to reassure himself. Nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, there was a definite something else to worry about. With a heavy sense of foreboding, Mazatl realizes that he is lost.
Thoughts are racing furiously through his mind. Mazatl takes a deep breath, tries not to panic, and gathers his bearings. He has no idea where the village is, but he assumes that he can’t have strayed too far from the path. Tonight there is going to be a ceremonial human sacrifice to the gods at nightfall, so Mazatl decides to wait until then and head towards the pillar of smoke that will hopefully be rising above the trees from the ceremonial fires. Feeling a bit calmer, Mazatl sits down and leans against a tall, sturdy Oak, ready to wait.
Alarmed, Mazatl sits straight up and looks around suspiciously. This is the second time he’s heard this mysterious sound. It could very possibly be nothing, of course, but with his amped-up nerves, he’s irrationally nervous. Mazatl strains his ears. Silence. With a heavy sigh of relief, he leans back against the tree and closes his eyes. Nightfall is fast approaching, and he longs for when he sees his mother again.
Mazatl’s eyes fly open, and to his shock and horror, dark figures are dropping expertly to the forest floor from the thick canopy of branches above. Within seconds, Mazatl is surrounded. Like silent shadows of death, the mysterious figures slowly approach him. He realizes that they are armed with deadly looking katanas. Paralyzed with fear, Mazatl can only look on in shock as the apparent leader stops right in front of him, and brandishes his weapon. He is unable to make out the face of his attacker in the twilight. At the last second, Mazatl tries to roll out of the way, but he’s too late. He feels hot, searing, unbearable pain clouds his mind. Suddenly, a startling realization hits him. He recognizes these black-clad warriors! As he slumps to the ground, right before completely retreating into unconsciousness, a single thought fills Mazatl’s mind.
These mysterious men are of the hated Spanish.
Mazatl stirs. For a brief moment, a merciful state of oblivion occupies him. Then, awareness of the fact that he’s bound to a tree in the middle of the forest, and a sudden remembrance of the events that took place who knows how long ago leading to his current state of captivity, hits him along with a rush of pain around his temple. Panic threatens to overwhelm, and Mazatl tries to get a hold of himself. He’s bound by his hands and ankles to a mighty oak, and - he realizes with a fit of strangled coughing - he’s gagged. In the dull gray light of dawn, he can see a semi-circle of tents surrounding a dying fire, some ten yards in front of him.
Mazatl realizes that this must be the camp of those wretched Spanish who captured him. Sure enough, a few minutes later, one of the tents rustles and the flap parts to reveal a burly, sour-faced soldier. Catching his eyes, the big goon smirks. Mazatl glares back defiantly. Finally, the Spanish invader approaches the fire and gets to work reviving it. Slowly but surely, more and more Spanish pour out of their tents, and the slowly brightening air fills with the inaudible gabble of the foreigners. So far, hardly any attention was paid to Mazatl as the warriors went about with their usual morning routine.
Eventually, quite late into the morning, a groggy soldier staggers from his tent, rubbing his sleepy eyes. He’s clearly the youngest warrior in the camp, and immediately gets reprimanded by the man who Mazatl presumes is the commander. Grumbling incoherently, the young man slouches off into the forest. Oddly, Mazatl has a feeling of recognition as his gaze lingers on the small figure disappearing into the woods. Puzzled, he shakes this strange feeling off, blaming it on his confused brain.
Time passes, soldiers come and go, and still, Mazatl feels as if he is invisible. At around noon, he starts to feel dizzy and light-headed. The sun is scorchingly hot, he hasn’t eaten or drank in hours, and his legs are aching. Finally, the leader approaches him. He rants for a few moments in Spanish, face red, spit flying everywhere.
“Er… what did you say?” says Mazatl tentatively when the brutish man has finished.
A roar of fury, and next thing he knows, Mazatl’s head is snapped to the side as a large hand makes contact painfully across the side of his face. Cheek burning, tears threatening to overflow, he glares at the man balefully as he stalks away from him, shouting to his men about something. Clearly in response to his orders, the young boy who looks strangely familiar makes his way begrudgingly towards Mazatl’s tree. The boy stops a few feet in front of him, whips out a small dagger from his belt, and advances even closer. Again distracted by the familiarity of the boy, Mazatl doesn’t even notice that his bonds had been severed until the boy mutters “come on” and then begins roughly dragging him towards the small camp.
Laughs and jeers fill the air as Mazatl is led unceremoniously closer and closer to the semi-circle of tents. Reaching his tent, the young boy pulls the flap open, then shoves Mazatl inside. The boy, still mysteriously silent, follows and seals the tent entrance behind him. Still unsure what was going on, Mazatl stands nervously at the back of the tent.
“Uh… can you please tell me what’s going on?” He asks, thoroughly frightened and confused, and still wondering why the boy was looking increasingly familiar. “Why did you capture me? What are you going to do to me? Are you going to kill-”
“My orders are to feed you, that’s all,” replies the boy finally, turning around to face him. “We wouldn’t want you to die before the big party tonight, would we?” A sly smirk twists his features.
Mazatl’s words die as a bowl of strange brown sludge is presented before him.
Mazatl begins slurping down the contents of the bowl ravenously, hardly paying attention to the young boy’s grumbling.
“-Stuck with you, just because I can speak Nahuatl-”
“Yeah, why can you speak my language?” Mazatl inquires curiously, finally taking a break with his food.
“None of your business,” replies the boy curtly. “Stay here.”
With that, the young boy leaves the tent, leaving Mazatl alone. Finishing the dark sludge, he begins to set it down on the floor, when something perplexing catches his eye. Bringing the bowl slowly back near his eyes, Mazatl carefully wipes away the remains of the food and then inspects the bottom of the bowl. To his astonishment, tiny, hastily scrawled Nahuatl letters are etched into the bowl, forming a formerly hidden message. Mazatl reads it. He lets out a gasp of astonishment, looks around nervously, then reads it again, not believing his eyes. He reads it again and again, open-mouthed in shock, until the words are engraved in his mind
If you did not notice me, it is I, your old friend Cuicatl.
I will explain everything later, but keep pretending that you do not know me for now.
In the meantime, hang tight.
We will escape at nightfall.