Cortés and his small army of Conquistadors enter Tenochtitlan, the island city of the Aztecs, as guests of the psychotic emperor Moctezuma who plans to trap them there and kill them all.
In a stunning coup, Cortés acts first, taking the emperor hostage and ruling the Aztecs through him.
All of Mexico seems about to fall into his hands until a report comes from the coast of the arrival of a new force of Spaniards with more than three times his numbers, sent not to strengthen him but to attack him and wrest the conquest from him.
Faced with the choice of abject surrender or war with fellow Spaniards Cortés chooses war and marches out to do battle but, in so doing he fatally weakens his garrison in Tenochtitlan and throws open the doors of Hell.
For six months, the conquistador Hernán Cortés has held Moctezuma hostage in his own capital city of Tenochtitlan, and ruled the Aztec empire through him. But now a new force of Spaniards has landed in Mexico under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez . Sent by Diego Velazquez, Governor of Cuba, they have come not to support Cortés but to kill him – for Velazquez and his supporters are jealous of the earlier successes of the conquest and wish to seize Mexico for themselves. Chapter Ten opens with the news that Gonzalo de Sandoval, commander of a small fortress that Cortés has established on the coast, has taken prisoner three of Narvaez’s emissaries who demanded his surrender and has sent them upcountry to Tenochtitlan…
Note to readers unfamiliar with the other books in the series: the Mayan woman Malinal, who has a part in the events described in Chapter Ten, is the lover of Cortés, and his interpreter. Her hatred of Moctezuma, and insights into the character of Aztec society, have been crucial to the success of the conquest… so far.
Sandoval had sent his letter on Sunday 24 April. Borne by relays of fast runners, it reached Cortés on Monday 25th. The hastily scrawled paragraphs set out the pressing news of the arrival of Narváez and his army from Cuba and informed Cortés that Sandoval had arrested Narváez’s emissaries – the priest Antonio de Guevara, the notary Alfonso de Vergara, and Antonio de Amaya, a cousin of Diego de Velázquez’s. Sandoval wrote that he had thought it well to have the three of them transported directly to Tenochtitlan, where Cortés would ‘know best how to deal with them’, and added that he had ‘handled them a little roughly’ by binding them up in packing crates and loading them, ‘like so much freight’, on to the backs of native porters who would travel, bearing the load in shifts without stopping for four days and nights. The journey through the mountains would therefore not only be degrading but also excruciatingly uncomfortable.
It was a good strategy! By treating the emissaries so ‘roughly’, Sandoval had cleverly left an opening for Cortés – should he wish to do so – to present himself as their saviour when they arrived in Tenochtitlan.
And that would be soon. The train of tamanes bringing the prisoners had left Villa Rica four days ago, and should even now be approaching the lakeside town of Iztapalapa, whence a causeway six miles long ran arrow straight into the heart of Tenochtitlan. Cortés had arranged for the expedition’s chaplain, Father Olmedo, and the tough old soldier Diego de Ordaz, to meet the humiliated envoys on their arrival at Iztapalapa, free them from their packing cases, furnish them with food, drink and clean clothes, mount them on fine horses, and escort them with all honours directly to him.
But why wait? There was so much he needed to do with these men! On impulse, Cortés decided he would meet them on the causeway; it was a little act of chivalry, but he knew it would make a strong impression on them.
Out of habit he called for Pepillo to bring his horse, then remembered with annoyance that the page was still assigned to Moctezuma. Well, damn! – another instant decision – that assignment was going to end tonight. The boy was no longer useful as a spy at Mucktey’s sham court since it was obvious the Mexica were on to him, but he’d be needed in the days ahead to keep note of events, and to make drafts and fair copies of the many letters that Cortés expected to have to write. He meant to strike at Narváez, and strike hard, but at a time of his own choosing when it perfectly suited him to do so. Until then his interests were best served by delaying a confrontation – so yes, there would be letters.
He strode to the door of his office and swung it open. Young Andres Farfan, who’d ushered in Sandoval’s runner two days before, was on guard duty again today. ‘Ah Farfan,’ said Cortés. ‘Go to the stables and saddle Molinero for me. Bring him to the courtyard. I’ll meet you there. Oh, and saddle a horse for Malinal as well – and see if you can find Don Pedro while you’re at it …’
‘Don Pedro Solis, sir?
Cortés gave him a blank look. Why on earth did the boy think he would be asking for Solis?
‘Don Pedro Comacho …?’
‘There are many Pedros in my army,’ Cortés sighed. ‘But it is Don Pedro de Alvarado I wish to see. You know? My second in command?’
Farfan’s face brightened in recognition – was he actually stupid or just very nervous? – and he saluted briskly. ‘Of course, sir. At once, sir.’ He hurried off along the corridor, his boot heels clacking. ‘Make haste!’ Cortés called after him. ‘We’re going to take a ride along the Iztapalapa causeway and I want to leave at once.’ An afterthought: ‘Can you sit a horse, boy?’
Farfan had stopped in his tracks and looked back eagerly over his shoulder: ‘Ye … Ye … Yes, sir.’
‘Then saddle one for yourself as well. And bring my standard. You will ride out with us.’
When Cortés and Malinal made their way to the courtyard a little later, Farfan was waiting for them, with not three but four horses, the fourth being Bucephalus, Alvarado’s magnificent white stallion.
‘You found Don Pedro then?’ Cortés called out.
‘It was he as told me to saddle his horse, sir. You did not ask that he should join us, but I took the liberty and hope I did the right thing. He’ll be along directly.’
Interesting! Despite his unpromising manner, it seemed that Farfan was capable of showing initiative after all.
‘You did the right thing,’ Cortés said. ‘Besides, I shudder to imagine the kicking Don Pedro would have given you if you’d refused to saddle Bucephalus!’
The stallions were both massive beasts and they dwarfed the geldings Farfan had brought along for himself and Malinal – a wise choice since mares could have led to trouble. Molinero was a hulking nineteen hands, but Bucephalus stood a full hand taller, and had a habit of pushing his weight around. A couple of years ago Molinero had made it clear with his teeth that he wouldn’t be bullied; there had been an ugly fight and since then the two horses seemed to have got along pretty well. Although you can never tell with stallions, Cortés reminded himself. Or with Alvarado either!
The Indians called him Tonatiuh, ‘the sun’, on account of his golden hair. He was a dear friend, but difficult, filled with pride, unpredictable and violent.
‘Good afternoon, Pedro,’ Cortés exclaimed as his second in command now strolled into the courtyard. ‘So glad you can join us.’
Thirty-four years old, broad-shouldered and strong, but light on his feet with a fencer’s easy grace, Alvarado wore a low-necked linen chemise, tight-fitting hose that outlined the sculpted muscles of his long legs, a prominent codpiece, and, at his belt, the hefty falchion – more of a cutlass than a sword – that he favoured in battle with the Indians. His hair and his elaborately curled and waxed moustache were thick and blond. He was a handsome man with a firm chin, bright blue eyes, and a duelling scar running from his right temple to the corner of his right eye. ‘Us?’ he sneered at Farfan. ‘Where are we going and why’s the boy coming?’
‘As my standard bearer,’ Cortés replied. ‘This is a diplomatic mission, Pedro.’
Alvarado’s brow darkened: ‘Ah, I see! You’re going to ride out and join your stupid welcoming committee for those curs of Narváez’s whom Sandoval sent on their way to us?’
‘Bad idea, Hernán! To welcome them at all is ridiculous enough – you know my views on that already. But to honour them with your presence? Definitely a mistake! You’ll make them think we’re afraid and trying to curry favour with their master.’
‘My guess is all thought of honour will be very far from their minds. And as to fear, it will be they who are feeling it, wondering what we’ll do to them when they get here after their treatment on the way up. Don’t forget they’ve just spent four days bouncing around in packing crates being carried through rivers and jungles in the valleys and over freezing passes in the mountains.’
‘Nothing more than they deserve!’
‘Come come! They are humble envoys, blameless in themselves, acting on the orders of Narváez …’
‘Even less reason to honour them!’
‘Ah, Pedro! I forget that subtlety is not amongst your many skills. By honouring them I mean to seduce them.’
Alvarado’s laugh was broad and sunny – the generous face of Tonatiuh: ‘Seduce away then, dear Hernán. Fuck them up their hairy arses if you want to! I should know you always have a plan, though I can’t imagine where this one will get you.’
‘Observe, be patient and you will see …’
The ride through the city in the late afternoon was pleasant enough, the houses with their overhanging roof gardens colourful as ever, the canals between the great avenues teeming with canoes, the markets raucous, pungent and bright – so why, Cortés wondered, was there this keen edge of malice in the air, coming at him like a blade?
He turned to Malinal, riding at his left: ‘Do you feel it?’
‘Feel what?’ asked Alvarado at Cortés’s right.
‘War,’ Cortés said.
‘I love war!’ Alvarado exclaimed.
‘War is coming, Pedro.’
Cortés hadn’t needed to explain to Malinal. They’d both heard Moctezuma’s warnings and they’d both talked often enough about the great change in the manner of the people since the year before when the Spaniards had made their first entry into Tenochtitlan along the same Iztapalapa causeway that Narváez’s envoys would soon cross.
Then it had been all joy and curiosity – and why not, since Cortés and his men had been invited into the city by the great Moctezuma himself? But after they had taken the monarch prisoner, little by little and day by day, he had become less great in the eyes of his people and started to lose his grip on their superstitious loyalty, and with it all authority and control over them. Something unheard of before in Mexica history was being contemplated – the overthrow of a reigning emperor for weakness and negligence of duty, and his replacement by another, more bellicose man who would honour Huitzilopochtli with all-out war against the Spaniards.
It was the presence of that war that Cortés felt now in the streets – not open war yet, bloody in tooth and claw, but the threat and the strong intimation of war, like some predatory beast that has marked its prey and is patiently stalking it. He could see it in the evil eye of that beggar woman over there, fixing on him with hatred from under her shawl then glancing rapidly away. He could see it in the hand of that butcher at the entrance to his stall, wielding an obsidian knife as though he meant to cut out a human heart, not slice meat. He could see it in the insolence of that knot of a score or so of young men advancing towards them along the centre of the avenue, refusing to give way – something that would have been inconceivable only a few months before.
Alvarado, Cortés and Malinal continued to ride three abreast. About a dozen paces ahead, holding aloft the fluttering standard, was Farfan. Dressed in loincloths and moccasins, flint daggers strapped at their waists, the twenty or so Mexica youths stopped in a block in his path, unyielding, daring him to advance further.
‘Push through, lad!’ Alvarado snapped as Bucephalus ambled into the rump of Farfan’s gelding. ‘You’re a solder of the Crown. You don’t make way for native rabble.’
‘This isn’t good,’ Malinal said. ‘These are warriors, Hernán.’
Cortés agreed. He’d had been watching the gang. They were purposive and disciplined, eyeing up the huge horses but evidently unafraid of them. No rabble these! Farfan turned with a look of uncertainty.
‘Push through!’ Alvarado yelled again.
Farfan’s heels kicked into his mount’s flanks and the animal surged forward, half trampling one of the youths, forcing the others to make way. Suddenly he was in the midst of them, and they surged back around him like a returning wave, threatening to bear him down. One made a grab for his reins and others drew their knives as they closed in.
Alvarado’s falchion was already out of its scabbard, gleaming in the late sun. ‘Santiago and at them!’ he bellowed, the war cry of Spain in its battles against the Moors for seven hundred years, and spurred Bucephalus forward, the great horse seeming to leap from a standstill to a full gallop in an instant, striking the thickly massed Mexica like an avalanche and scattering them left and right. A second later Cortés drew his broadsword and charged Molinero into the melee, heading straight for Farfan, who had been half dragged from his saddle but still doggedly refused to relinquish his grip on the standard.
There were a lot of hands on him! One particularly large warrior had a beefy arm around his head and was set fair to wrestle him to the ground, but none of them was sticking knives into him yet, probably because these idiots, as was the habit of the Mexica, wanted to capture them alive for sacrifice.
Did they really imagine they could get away with that?
Using Molinero’s huge mass and weight as a battering ram, Cortés barged forward and plunged the point of his sword down into the soft, unprotected gap between the big warrior’s collarbone and his neck. It sunk in deep, finding his heart, and he relinquished his hold on Farfan with a bubbling gasp. From there it was just plain slaughter, delivered as though it were a parade-ground exercise, as Cortés and Alvarado rampaged through the rest of the attackers, leaving a dozen of them dismembered on the ground before the remnant accepted they were beaten and ran. Even Farfan acquitted himself well after his initial panic, drawing his rusty old sword and spitting a fleeing Indian with it.
‘That’s the way, lad,’ Alvarado said, riding up to him. ‘Show them no mercy because they’ll show you none … Your first kill?’
‘Nuh … Nuh … No sir.’
‘Well I suggest you learn!’
Hundreds of Mexica who had been passing by when the attack began looked on in stunned silence. Blood pooled on the street, streamed into the drains and spattered the three Spaniards from head to foot.
‘It won’t do for Narváez’s men to see us like this,’ Cortés said suddenly. ‘I need them to believe they’re coming into a calm city where we’re completely in control. This gives the wrong impression.’
‘You want us to get changed for them?’ Alvarado asked disbelievingly.
‘Yes. We go back to the palace!’
Cortés laid a hand on Malinal’s bare forearm, bringing her alongside him, then tapped a heel to Molinero’s flank; they set off at a trot after Farfan with Alvarado taking up the rear. The crowd gave them a wide berth, closing behind them at once and wheeling around the dead warriors.
A great cry of grief went up.
Father Bartolomé Olmedo, Mercedarian friar and chaplain to the expedition to the New Lands of Don Hernando Cortez, strove at all times to be happy. What after all was the point of life without happiness? It defied common sense to imagine that God had put us on this earth to be miserable! Each one of us, each human soul, was here to celebrate joy – and in Olmedo’s case joy meant a bottle of good red wine, or preferably several bottles to be had one after the other accompanying an excellent dinner. It was most unfortunate, therefore, that no such joy was to be found anywhere in the New Lands, since the expedition’s limited supply, including the special barrels earmarked for Mass, had run out. The only plausible substitute was a fermented local drink called pulque that had happily crossed his path. Being milky white in colour it wouldn’t do for Mass, and it had a sour, yeast-like taste that made him shudder at first, but the effect after a few bowls was pleasant enough, so he’d persisted with the experiment and was now even beginning to appreciate the flavour.
A flagon of Olmedo’s best pulque, with his drinking bowl half empty beside it, stood on the table before him, attracting worried glances from the servants in the dining hall of Iztapalapa’s lakeside palace. He could understand their dilemma; they believed the sacred beverage was forbidden to him as a foreigner, but did not dare to question his right to drink it. He lifted the brightly painted ceramic bowl with its imagery of crescent moons – for some reason the Mexica associated pulque with the moon – drained it, belched, and filled the bowl again from the flagon.
A portly, rugged friar of perhaps forty, Olmedo had a strong jaw which he’d recently taken to shaving clean, and a Roman nose, giving him a somewhat fierce, uncompromising look, greatly softened by twinkling brown eyes. Despite a full tonsure, out of which rose the smooth and deeply tanned dome of his skull, his hair was unruly, reddish-brown in colour, thick and shaggy at the nape of his bull-like neck and somewhat overhanging his brow. His shoulders and chest were massive, and an ample stomach thrust comfortably forward through his habit.
He surrendered to another gulp of pulque; really, the more of the stuff he drank, the better he liked it! Just as well he’d brought along a few flagons, as he had no idea how long he might be sitting here, or whether dour, grey-bearded, cold-eyed, utterly humourless Ordaz sitting opposite him, with whom he’d run out of conversation some dreary hours before, might be transformed into a more entertaining companion if he could get some pulque into him.
Not that there was any hope of that! Ordaz had claimed to be disgusted by the single sip he’d tried earlier and had spat it out explosively on the floor.
That was when Olmedo remembered what was in his satchel. He was something of a herbalist, and it was his practice to collect specimens of interesting plants and fungi wherever he travelled. After coming to Tenochtitlan he’d heard rumours about certain mushrooms that the Mexica called teonanácatl, ‘the flesh of the gods’, said to be intoxicating, and one of his scouts had recently skulked up to him with a linen bag containing a dozen fine large examples. Olmedo had selected one at random and insisted that his scout eat it in his presence, which he did willingly. Observing no ill effect on the man after three hours, other perhaps than some mild disorientation, and having had him return the next day when he proved still to be in good health, Olmedo had concluded that these mushrooms were not poisonous.
With what he hoped was a casual air, he reached into his satchel, found the linen bag with the eleven remaining mushrooms, and transferred it to the sleeve of his white Mercedarian habit. It was the work of an instant, unnoticed by Ordaz, who sat twiddling his thumbs, his gaze fixed on the door.
‘Excuse me, Don Diego,’ Olmedo now said, rising. I’m going to pay a visit to the kitchens and find out how they’re doing with the banquet for the men we’re meeting …’
‘Bah! Complete folly that we are here to meet them at all, let alone fretting over a banquet for them!’
‘I understand your point of view, Don Diego,’ Olmedo replied in soothing, sermon-like tones, ‘and most of the other captains share it. Still, we are here to carry out the caudillo’s wishes and we must accept, I think, that he knows what he’s doing.’
Through until the summer of last year, when he’d taken part in a failed conspiracy at Villa Rica, Ordaz had been – more or less openly – a ‘Velazquista’, as Cortés termed the supporters of his rival Diego de Velázquez, the governor of Cuba. The conspiracy, which had involved stealing a ship and attempting to make off in it to Cuba, had involved some fifty of the men. Their leader, Juan Escudero, had promptly been hanged, as had the ship’s pilot Diego Cermeno, ten of the conspirators had been flogged, and one had the toes of his left foot cut off as an exemplary punishment, but Cortés had generously spared Ordaz, along with all the rest, after which the grizzled old captain had never again faltered in his loyalty.
That was good, Olmedo thought. Unswervingly devoted to the caudillo himself, he valued the same sentiments in others. Nonetheless, the fact could not be escaped that Ordaz was a crashing bore, and if the train of tamanes bringing the envoys up from Villa Rica was delayed for any reason – by no means impossible on such a long and difficult road – then he might be obliged to wait here in the old fart’s tedious company for hours longer.
The prospect of such ennui, Olmedo decided, could not be tolerated.
He made his way to the palace kitchens, returning after an interval accompanied by a serving girl carrying two steaming plates.
‘Look here, Don Diego,’ Olmedo said as the plates were set down on the table. ‘I had them make us a snack. I do hope you might be partial to a rib or two of venison, nicely smoked? Oh, and these very fine fresh mushrooms, sliced and lightly sautéed on the side?’
Ordaz straightened his back, growled with appreciation – a remarkable change from the sullen mood he’d projected all afternoon – and smacked his lips. ‘Now you’re talking,’ he said.
Night had fallen and Tenochtitlan’s avenues and canals glittered with lanterns, giving the great city the aspect of a fairytale kingdom, when Cortés and Malinal rode out with Alvarado and Farfan again. They were accompanied this time by a squad of six seasoned killers under Sergeant García Brabo, lean and grey-haired, with a hooked nose and a permanently sour expression. Dressed in filthy clothes, wearing strange combinations of scratched and battered plate and chain mail, and equally scratched and battered helmets, but armed with fine broadswords and daggers of the best Toledo steel, Brabo’s men were part of a larger force of twenty-five who’d been doing Cortés’s dirty work for years. They were natural foot soldiers but could fight on horseback when they had to and were mounted now for the evening’s brisk ride.
The enforced return to the palace, the necessary ablutions to remove the blood, changing clothes, and rounding up Brabo, had all taken much longer than expected. Two hours had been wasted. Cortés couldn’t understand why the envoys hadn’t already been brought to him. But at the very least, having been met by Olmedo and Ordaz, put at liberty, and given a good dinner in Iztapalapa, they should be on horseback now and well advanced on the final leg of their journey along the causeway, most likely even at the city gates.
They were not at the gates. Once through them, Cortés raised his hand for a halt, his eyes straining to follow the flickering mirage of the causeway, lined by lanterns along its full six-mile length, stretching southward into darkness. There was still some light pedestrian traffic on it, moving in both directions, but no sign of a group of riders and retainers advancing from Iztapalapa.
‘You seem deep in thought, brother?’ Alvarado observed.
‘I’m wondering if we have any cause for concern …’
‘If you mean, could your precious envoys have been snatched en route by another gang of half-naked indigenes like those we met earlier then, yes, we do!’
‘Perchance they are only delayed on the road?’
Cortés thought for a moment. ‘We’ll go as far as Iztapalapa. If they’re not there we’ll send out runners. Most likely it’s nothing serious, but we need to know …’
He spurred Molinero forward to a trot, then to a canter, then to a gallop. Malinal, who’d become a competent rider in the past year, kept pace on his left. Alvarado on Bucephalus rode on his right. The others followed in a tight group.
The boards of the causeway thundered and echoed beneath their hooves. Ahead of them pedestrians panicked. Some fell and were trampled, others scattered to the sides, many in their haste leaping over the railings and throwing themselves into the lake.
This would do nothing, Cortés thought, to calm the fevered sentiments of the Mexica! On the other hand, the attack earlier had been launched with deadly intent and a harsh response would be expected; indeed, he would look weak if he left the matter unpunished.
He rode down an aged crone, hearing her bones snap like kindling beneath Molinero’s iron-shod hooves, and felt no regret.
On his left, Malinal shouted something harsh and wild but her words were snatched away in the wind.
At some unknown interval after eating the mushrooms, which he had divided equally with Ordaz, Olmedo began to notice that he was feeling somewhat strange. In fact, he realised, he had probably already been feeling strange for a while, but time no longer seemed to have any meaning and, besides, this mushroom feeling was unfamiliar and insidious, and had rather crept up on him.
He’d been excited when his informants had told him of the teonanácatl’s intoxicating properties, which they even described as a kind of drunkenness, and which he hoped might prove as enjoyable as wine. Unfortunately, however – he shook his head violently from side to side to clear it – this didn’t feel like alcohol intoxication at all!
It felt like something quite other.
And that something … Was it not slightly sinister?
Why, for example, were the walls of the palace dining hall in which they sat actually breathing? Walls did not breathe! Walls were not alive! Olmedo knew this and yet he could swear that the whole huge room was expanding and contracting around him, expanding and contracting like some vast womb about to give birth … To what?
He looked down at his hands. They glowed, surrounded by a foggy nimbus of diffused white light. He remembered his mother, Adelmira, in the brief, sunny, almost forgotten years before he’d been taken into the monastery. He sobbed. Widowed, too poor to raise him, she’d given him up. Suddenly it was brought home to him with the force of a revelation that there was so much sadness in the world. How could the purpose of life be the pursuit of happiness when there was so much sadness! His long-lost mother’s, and his own, were but tiny fragments of an incomprehensibly larger whole – all these human beings, so many of them misguided, afraid, ill informed, foolish, and all of them present together in the joyous garden of the earth and making themselves and everyone else thoroughly miserable.
‘None of us have any idea what we’re doing here,’ Olmedo said suddenly. He spoke so loudly that he startled himself – and Ordaz.
‘What? What’s that?’ muttered the captain, who had slumped forward wordless over the table soon after finishing his plate, falling into a state of withdrawal far deeper than his previous morose silence – an outcome quite the opposite of Olmedo’s intentions for this experiment with a novel intoxicant. Now, however, the other man abruptly sat upright, his eyes darting wildly from side to side. ‘What? Who?’ He half rose to his feet, calloused fingers falling to the pommel of the ridiculous two-handed longsword, known as a montante, that he insisted on always wearing, stumbled, tripped between the table and the chair, and fell sideways to the floor with a tremendous clatter of metal and leather.
Rushing to his aid, Olmedo lost his own footing. Goodness! He hardly had his legs under him, an effect that would have taken several bottles of wine to produce! He also felt faintly sick. With much grunting and manhandling, assisted by several servants – why did they all have green skin? – he lifted Ordaz and levered him into his chair, where he promptly slumped forward, seemingly unconscious, over his own folded elbows.
Oh dear! Olmedo thought as he unsteadily returned to his seat. The room simply would not stay still!
And what was that music?
Ah! A flute player. An old, old man, green skin like the rest of them, huge wen on the side of his nose, was piping out a haunting tune. Then a tall, ethereal, imperious, Greek-looking woman floated by, wearing a long diaphanous robe, lightning darting from her eyes, and stood over the table staring fixedly at Olmedo. The odd thing – quite bizarre really – was that she was completely transparent and he could see the flute player through her.
Fascinating! How could this be? These mushrooms clearly contained some far from ordinary intoxicant. While aware that he was falling ever more completely under its spell with each passing moment, Olmedo found he still had enough of his reason left to suspect that he had perhaps begun with too strong a dose before he had discovered his measure. Next time – and there would be a next time! – he would start the experiment with just one mushroom, carefully assess its effects on him, then the following day try two, and the day after, if necessary, three. But almost six each in a single serving, as he’d dished out to Ordaz and himself in his fit of boredom earlier this evening, was obviously too many.
As though in confirmation of this, the transparent women now spoke to him in excellent Latin. ‘Olmedo,’ she said, her voice, rich and warm, sending chills down his spine and electrifying the hairs on his arms, ‘I have work for you to do.’
It was distinctly peculiar that her lips did not move and yet her words rang like a peal of bells inside his head!
More peculiar still, this angel, this vision – this goddess? – was changing shape before Olmedo’s eyes; not the work of an instant, but a complex, amazing, beautiful and numinous process. He could only think of it as a kind of unfolding, like the emergence from the bud of the petals of a flower.
What came forth, however, was no flower, but an immense serpent the colour of rust and mould, a serpent fifty feet long that towered over him, its mouth gaping, its fangs exposed like unsheathed daggers. A ruff of bright feathers adorned its sinuous neck, extending up into a crest that ran the full length of its great head.
‘I have work for you to do,’ it repeated.
Olmedo had liked the look of the woman, but this nightmarish phantasm was an altogether different proposition. Might it not even be the very serpent that had tempted Adam and Eve in the garden? Was some great temptation about to be offered to him here?
‘What work?’ he asked suspiciously.
‘You’ll know when the right time comes.’
The serpent’s form shimmered, grew indistinct, returned for an instant in almost complete solidity, blurred again, then vanished. Beyond it the elderly musician was still in place, still playing his little ceramic flute.
Not at all understanding what had happened, but suddenly feeling more or less normal, and that the accustomed balance of the world had in some mysterious manner been restored, Olmedo’s eyes and thoughts refocused on Ordaz, whom he’d entirely forgotten in the past moments, but who had, nevertheless, remained in his chair on the other side of the table throughout.
The captain’s manner was far from normal, however. Previously slouching, propped on his elbows, he now sat rigidly upright, mouth gaping, wide-eyed and staring – but apparently seeing nothing. Olmedo leaned across and waved, whispered some encouragement, barked a command and finally reached out with both hands and shook Ordaz mightily, but with no discernible reaction.
‘Poor man!’ the friar clucked. He felt sorry for the old soldier and a little guilty to have inflicted this intoxication on him without informing him. To have endured the storm of visions unleashed by the mushrooms without any preparation whatsoever, or any notion at all of why he was having those earth-shaking experiences, must have been quite devastating. Indeed, apparently it continued to be devastating! The usually stolid and expressionless Ordaz now gave a great shuddering yell, leapt to his feet, again stepped around the table – but this time with remarkable agility – and stood glowering down at Olmedo.
‘What ho, Don Diego?’ the friar asked, attempting to sound cheerful when in truth he was afraid – and for two reasons.
First, to his horror, the room was again contracting and expanding around him like a womb, and he could feel the power of the mushrooms – which had only retreated, he now understood – rushing back with renewed vigour and threatening to undo him utterly.
Secondly, there was the terrible aspect of Captain Ordaz looming over him, sweating beneath the stinking chain mail he seemed never to take off, his face contorted with fury, but also with stark, unabashed terror, his eyes liquid with hatred and fear.
How long, Olmedo wondered in something approaching panic, was this going to last before the mushroom intoxication wore off?
Ordaz’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed, his thin lips making an absurd sound – clack! – whenever they touched. ‘You!’ he now roared – clack! ‘You!’ – clack! – ‘are that beast – clack! – ‘whose name is Leviathan.’ His voice had suddenly cleared, recognition seemed to dawn, and he stooped lower to peer directly into Olmedo’s eyes, as though searching for some message there, at last emitting a shuddering roar and announcing: ‘You are the devil. You cannot hide from me! I have seen through your disguise!’
Your lips aren’t clacking now, Olmedo thought randomly, but what he said was: ‘Come come, Don Diego! Get a grip. This is all intoxicated nonsense you’re spouting and you’ll be ashamed of yourself tomorrow.’
‘You are the devil, I say!’
Ordaz was literally beside himself with loathing and fury, Olmedo realised, big veins popping out on his forehead, staring around insanely, so completely in the grip of the mushrooms that he seemed capable of anything.
Could he even be dangerous?
Yes! Because the captain was armed with an enormous sword that he knew how to use and had obviously lost his wits.
‘You are the devil,’ Ordaz repeated, as though in confirmation of something long believed though never before admitted to be true. He hauled the montante from its scabbard with a horrible, whispering susurration, and raised it two-handed above his head, but such was Olmedo’s faith in his fellow man that only at the last moment did he realise a strike was coming. He squealed and – more by accident than design – ducked out of the way. The blade of the great sword whistled down and embedded itself in the heavy table. Bellowing like a bull, Ordaz struggled mightily to free it and while he was thus occupied, Olmedo darted forward and dealt him a terrific blow to the head.
‘Nicely done!’ came a familiar voice as Ordaz slumped unconscious to the floor. The voice of Cortés! ‘Not often I get to see one of my captains knocked out cold by a friar.’
Cortés was somehow here! Malinal was with him. Behind them Alvarado and Brabo, too, and some of his toughs, were crowding through the door, some suppressing sniggers, others openly laughing.
Olmedo reeled. ‘Caudillo … I … I …’ He wanted to explain – although God’s blood! how could any of this be explained? – but the power of the mushrooms had now risen to a previously unimagined crescendo. ‘I …’ he tried again. ‘I …’
‘And not often I find you lost for words Bartolomé,’ added Cortés with a smile. It was particularly difficult to watch this smile since the familiar, bearded face upon which it was fixed was disturbingly mobile, rippling in fact, compressed in some directions and stretched in others, with the teeth rather snaggled and long.
Seemingly oblivious to his own process of transformation, Cortés looked down at Ordaz, still senseless, and at the gleaming montante still trapped in the table. He raised a quizzical eyebrow: ‘Would you like to tell me what happened here, Bartolomé?’
Olmedo hung his head: ‘Hernán’, he managed to say, ‘I cannot.’ Some instinct told him to keep the whole matter of the mushrooms to himself.
Out of nowhere, a scheme appeared fully formed in Olmedo’s mind. He made the gesture of a man drinking from a bottle and gave a bleary wink: ‘Not in my present condition.’
‘You’re drunk?’ When Cortés frowned he looked ugly! He glanced at the pulque flagon, somehow still intact on the table, with the drinking bowl spilled beside it: ‘Am I to understand that you and Ordaz got drunk on that native firewater and had a fight? Am I seriously to believe this?’
‘Yes, Caudillo. I am ashamed.’
‘Ha! So you should be! Damned irresponsible of you, Olmedo. If you weren’t a friar I’d have you flogged!’ He glowered at Ordaz, seemed to consider, then kicked him in the ribs: ‘And if he wasn’t a captain I’d have him flogged. Truly I’d like to have you both flogged! What did you think you were doing?
The kick had awakened Ordaz. ‘The devil is amongst us,’ he gasped. ‘He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’
‘Gospel of Matthew,’ Cortés said, as though speaking to himself, ‘Chapter seven, if I remember correctly, verse fifteen.’ Ordaz had struggled to his knees and would soon be on his feet, but García Brabo stepped forward and took him by the collar of his jerkin: ‘Not so fast, there’s a good fellow,’ the sergeant said.
The captain thrashed wildly and Brabo’s wiry arm snaked around his throat: ‘You’ve been taken unwell, sir. Best if I pop you off to sleep again.’ The sergeant squeezed – remarkably little pressure seemed to be involved – and Ordaz’s eyes fluttered closed.
‘Is he all right?’ Olmedo asked.
‘Of course he is, Father,’ Brabo replied, laying Ordaz down gently on his side, ‘and at least he won’t be raving about the devil any more.’
Cortés turned to Olmedo: ‘Bartolomé, this has been a peculiar business and you look most peculiar yourself.’
Involuntarily the friar brushed at his habit, as though removing crumbs.
‘I mean to impress Narváez’s envoys,’ Cortés continued, ‘and win them over to our cause, so I regard it as a matter of great good fortune, indeed of divine Providence, that they have been delayed on their journey and not reached Iztapalapa yet. In the next days I will require a full explanation from you of what happened here, but tonight you must go back to Tenochtitlan, at once, and take Ordaz with you …’
‘No buts! Take him on horseback if he can ride, or trussed up in a hammock and carried by tamanes if he cannot. Either way, I want you both gone now. I’ll send three of Brabo’s boys with you to make sure you stay on your mounts and get back to quarters, but I’ll permit you to cause me no further embarrassment here!’
An hour after Olmedo and Ordaz were sent on their way, fortunately without further incident, the runner who’d waited on the road all afternoon to bring advance notice of the envoys’ arrival came pounding into the dining hall of the palace of Iztapalapa breathless with news.
He fell to his knees and gave his report – a few words only.
‘They’re here,’ Malinal announced before he was finished. She was already pulling on her cloak.
‘Still in their packing crates?’ Cortés asked.
Malinal put the question in Nahuatl, heard the answer and laughed.
‘Yes, so it seems.’
‘He said something about the prisoners not even being let out to shit.’
‘Uggh. Unnecessarily cruel …’
‘Like your cruelty in riding down that old woman on the causeway?’
Cortés thought about it. Malinal was intelligent, capable of fine arguments, and she had a point.
‘Yes, he replied, ‘perhaps exactly like that. ‘I will not argue with you. But this is war, Malinal, and when I make war I give no quarter.’
‘Is it not also war with this – what do you call him? – Nar-Vez?’
‘Yes. It is war.’
‘Then surely putting his envoys in packing cases was not “unnecessary cruelty” but more like “giving no quarter”? It shows you are strong …’
‘And it gives me something to bargain with,’ Cortés added. Every day his respect for Malinal’s political savvy was growing. ‘Come now and we’ll release those men.’
A hundred torches blazed in the clearing where the three envoys had been brought and set down in their cages – for these packing containers were nothing more than cages, such as one might keep a dog in. Cortés ordered more torches brought until the scene was as bright as day.
Guevara, the fat priest, was in the cage closest to him and was particularly fawning and effusive. Sandoval had described him as arrogant and domineering, but after four days in a packing case, bouncing around in his own shit, he was a changed man.
‘You must be Father Antonio Ruiz de Guevara!’ Cortés boomed, striding towards the cage.
‘I am he,’ said Guevara. He pressed himself against the slats in the side of the container, suddenly close to Cortés: ‘And you are?’
‘I am Hernán Cortés, sir, captain-general for the king, and chief justice in these New Lands, and I have come to set you free.’
At his signal, Brabo’s men broke the fastenings of the three containers and brought the captives, hobbling and filthy, out of their confinement.
‘Gentlemen,’ Cortés said, ‘I rushed here to meet you, and to offer my humble apologies in person, as soon as I got word of what had happened. A most unfortunate mistake was made by the commander of my garrison at the coast, Captain Gonzalo de Sandoval, an excellent young officer but sometimes over-zealous. In his treatment of you, he has gone far beyond the bounds of his authority and of all human decency. For this regrettable error you will be compensated, in gold. You have my word.’
‘Gold you say.’ In his shit-stained robe, the wizened figure of the royal notary, Alfonso de Vergara, was easy to recognise.
‘Yes, Señor Vergara. Gold. I am inclined to be generous.’
The third man, Antonio de Amaya, hobbled closer.
‘And to you, too, Señor Amaya,’ said Cortés, turning towards him. ‘I’ll see you get satisfaction in this matter …’
‘My cousin,’ said Amaya ‘is—’
‘I know!’ Cortés smiled: ‘Juan Velázquez de Léon, like yourself a cousin of Governor Diego Velázquez of Cuba, but also one of my most trusted captains. He is not in the city or I would have brought him here to meet you, but I expect his return soon. You are amongst friends here, Señor Amaya – ’ he extended his arms to include the other three but, in their filth, avoided embracing any one of them – ‘you are all amongst friends here. Now come – the hour is late but we have hot baths, clean clothes, and a banquet prepared for you in our lakeside palace here at Iztapalapa.’
‘Your lakeside palace, Lord Cortés?’ It was Guevara who asked.
‘Yes, one of several now in my possession that we hold in the name of the king and for the greater glory of Spain. The best of them is in Tenochtitlan, the capital, where we’ll take you tomorrow.’ Cortés stepped forward and almost clapped the other man on the shoulder, then thought better of it. ‘We enjoy great riches here, Guevara,’ he said, ‘you’ll see. And we are true servants of the Crown—’
‘You hold a royal warrant?’
A sharp, legalistic question, for which Cortés had a sharp, legalistic answer. ‘We discovered these New Lands for the king and last year we planted a colony here to watch over the king’s interests. I am its legally elected captain-general and justicia mayor. Now come, let us get you to those baths!’