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Aztec by Colin Falconer

Foreword The strangest part of this story is that it is not a work of fiction. I have not strayed from the actual historical facts of the Mexican Conquest; I have merely interpreted the motivations and characters of the participants. I have tried to keep faith with the known characters of those conquistadores such as CortĂŠs and Alvarado and others who took part in the enterprise. The woman Malinali did exist, and her actions are still a matter of passionate debate in Mexico. However, almost nothing is known about the personal history of this most extraordinary woman before the Spanish insurgency. At the time of the Spanish conquest the ruling tribe of the Mexican valley called themselves the Cuhlua Mexica. The term 'Aztec' did not come into common usage until the nineteenth century. Mexico City, October 2000. Malinali I am an old, old woman, dressed in the rags of an Indian, and I will walk the streets of the city tonight, crying for my lost children; the dirty streets, the ancient streets, the streets of the homeless and the dispossessed. I stumble across the great square, near the ruins of the Temple, shouting at the ghosts who haunt me. See me shuffle along the arcades of the plaza, keeping close to the shadows, where the great cathedral leans like a drunken Indian, its old stones sinking into the lake that lies beneath our feet. Hear me crying at night among the stranded ruins of the Temple Mayor, now the gringos with their Nikons and video cameras are gone. The tourists are shut away in their expensive hotels on the Paseo. In the Republica de Cuba a frightened indian hears me weeping and, making the sign of the cross, he hurries home across the plaza with an eye cast fearfully over his shoulder for me, La Llonora, the weeping woman of Mexico.

I have reason to weep for what I have done, and what was done to me. And if you venture with me a little way, into this darkened catholic doorway that smells of age and piss, if you can bear to sit this close to an old indian woman, wrinkled like a monkey and smelling of death, I will tell you my story, the only story Mexico has.

PART I The Feathered Serpent When the time has come, I will return into your midst, by the eastern sea, together with white and bearded men... - proclamation to the Toltec people by their god-king, Feathered Serpent, circa 1000 AD. (From Aztec legend.) Malinali Painali, Tabasco: 1513 I stare into the darkness, listening to the sounds of my own funeral. It is the Eighth Watch of the Night, when ghosts walk and headless demons pursue lonely travellers on the roads. I am trussed on the floor of my mother's food store. Wicker baskets of vanilla pods are stacked against the adobe walls and the room is filled with their sweet, cloying smell. A screech owl twists its great head and watches me from its perch on the carved cedar beam above my head. Its yellow eyes blink slowly. An omen; the owl is envoy from the Lord of the Darkness, Mitlantecutli, come to lead me into the underworld. And my mother is to send me from this world without even my fare through the Narrow Passage. I try again to wriggle free but the thongs around my wrists and ankles bite deeper into my skin. My mother wants me dead. I close my eyes and listen to the dirge sounds, the bass boom of the conches, the hollow thrum of the huehuetl drums, the shriek of whistles. I can hear someone shouting my name, then the crackle of flames; another is blackening on the pyre in my place.

The moan of the East Wind consoles me. At this moment of my great danger, Feathered Serpent, Lord of Wisdom, is watching over me. I hear whispers outside the hut. My eyes blink open to search the shadows. There is the flare of a pine torch as they enter. I know them; slave merchants from Xicallanco. They have visited Painali many times; my father always treated them with disdain. One of them is without an eye and the flesh is smeared pink around the old scar like cold grease. The torches throw their faces into shadow. "Here she is," the one-eyed man says. The gag is making me choke. One of the men laughs at my struggles but One Eye hisses at him to be quiet. But there is no need for stealth. They could all be drunk and screaming on peyotl juice but no one would hear them over the sound of the funeral drums. They lift me easily between them and carry me out of the hut into the darkness. The wind moans again, Feathered Serpent growling in anger. I must not be frightened. This is not the end my father prophesied for me. I am Ce Malinali, One Grass of Penance, I will find my destiny in disaster, I am the drum that beats the sunset for Motecuhzoma, my future is with the gods. My future is with Feathered Serpent.

Chapter One Tenochtitlàn One Reed on the ancient Aztec Calendar, The Year of Our Lord, 1519. The owl man staggered, white froth on his lips, laughing at the shadows hiding in the corners of the Dark House of the Cord. His hair, which reached almost to his waist, was matted with dried blood, and the black mantle around his shoulders gave him the appearance of a hunched and malevolent crow. Motecuhzoma, the Angry Lord, Revered Speaker of the Mexica, watched, the turquoise plugs in the piercings of his ears and lips reflecting the glow of the pine torches. He whispered his questions to Woman Snake at his elbow. Woman Snake repeated the questions carefully. "Owl Bringer, can you see through the mists to the future of the Mexica?" The owl man lay on his back on the floor, laughing hysterically, helpless to the grip of the peyote liquor. "Tenochtitlàn is in flames!" Motecuhzoma shifted uneasily on the low carved throne. The owl man sat up, pointed at the wall. "A wooden tower walks to the temple of Yopico!" "A tower cannot walk," Motecuhzoma hissed. "The gods have fled ... to the forest." Motecuhzoma wrung his hands in his lap. He whispered another question to Woman Snake. "What do you see of Motecuhzoma?" "I see the Angry Lord burning and no one to mourn him. The Mexica spit on his body!" Woman Snake stiffened. Even under the intoxication of peyotl the obscenity echoed around the cavernous room like thunder. "What other portents?" he asked. "There are great temples on the lake ... marching towards Tenochtitlàn!" "A temple cannot march." "The Feathered Serpent returns!" The owl man gasped gasped the words between paroxysms of laughter. "There will be a Tenochtitlàn no longer!"

Motecuhzoma rose to his feet, his face contorted into a grimace. "Our cities are destroyed ... our bodies are piled in heaps ... " The emperor put both hands to his face. "Soon we will see the portents in the sky!" The owl man crawled towards the throne on his hands and knees. There was saliva smeared on his cheek. His eyes were like obsidian. "Turn and see what is about to befall the Mexica!" Motecuhzoma was silent, his face hidden in his hands. When he removed them, Woman Snake dared a glance at his emperor and saw that he was weeping. "Wait until the effects of the peyotl have worn off," Motecuhzoma growled, "then skin him." He hurried from the chamber. Owl Bringer lay on the floor, lost to his wild and fevered dreams, laughing at shadows. near the Grijalva River. Hernan Cort茅s steadied himself on the rail of the Santa Maria de la Concepci贸n, sailing close-hauled, the coast of Yucatan no more than a greasegreen border on the port horizon. He sniffed at the taint of tropic vegetation on the salt air. The canvas cracked like grapeshot in the yards above his head, his personal banner whipping from the mast. It bore a red cross on black velvet, below it a Latin inscription in royal blue, the same words that had once graced the Emperor Constantine's own ensign: Brothers, let us follow the Cross, and by our faith shall we conquer! A long way, all this, from the melancholy plains of Extremadura. It was the culmination of all his dreams. He was sailing to a hostile coast in uncharted waters and yet it was as if he was coming home. This wind was his wind, carrying him to his destiny. He knew it as sure as there was a God in heaven. He looked down at the main deck, at Benitez and Jaramillo hunched in conversation; poor hidalgos like himself, men with education and breeding but no inheritance. They had come to the Indies, as he had, to find their fortunes and escape boredom and poverty, to free themselves from the petty tyrannies of

grandees and the harping of priests. They had all rushed to join him in Cuba, these soldiers of fortune, these bored planters, these failed gold miners, looking for plunder and profit. And he would give it to them, and more besides. It would be an adventure in the old style, with fame and riches and service to the Lord. This was his hour, and a good day to be alive. *** Gonzalo Norte wanted only to die. He retched again, spitting green bile into the ocean. Who would believe he had spent eleven of his thirty three years as a sailor? But the last time he had stood on the heaving deck of a ship was eight years ago, another lifetime. It was not the oily pitching of the Nao that made him wish for death. It was a sickness of another kind, a sickness of the soul. He dared a glance and saw his new companions staring at him with their vicious eyes. They feared and hated him, of course. He was a plague carrier, incubus of a contagion worse than any black-blistered pestilence known on this fever coast. A few of them spat in his direction as they passed him on the deck. He felt an arm go around his shoulders. Aguilar! His one friend on this boat and the pity of it was he did not have the strength to throttle the bastard. "Is it not good to be among Christians again, Gonzalo?" Aguilar used the Chontal Maya tongue, for Norte had forgotten all but a few words of his native Castilian. Thy rancid and hairy balls! Norte thought. My dog spits them out! "Good? For you, perhaps, Jeronimo." Aguilar had donned the brown habit of a deacon. Only his shaved head and tobacco-dark skin betrayed the fact that a few days ago he was the slave of a Mayan cacique. He clutched the crumbling Book of Hours that had been his constant companion through his captivity in Yucatan. "You must leave that other life behind," Aguilar said. "Pray for forgiveness and it shall be given you. You succumbed to the devil but you may still be saved." By Satan's hairy ass, Norte thought. I would like to pitch this damned deacon over the side and let God enjoy his company in heaven with the other

saints. Does he not understand that I have no soul left to save? They have wrenched it from me, like a priest tearing out a heart. Why doesn't he just leave me alone? "Our Lord is boundless in mercy. Confess your sins and you may start your life anew." "Just leave me alone," Norte said. "For pity's sake, just leave me alone." And he retched again. *** Julian Benitez watched Aguilar’s attempts to console the renegade. Only Norte truly disgusted him; Aguilar was merely insufferable, like most churchmen. The two men - Norte was a crew member, Aguilar a passenger, a deacon who had just taken minor orders - had been shipwrecked on the way from Darien to Hispaùola eight years ago. They and seventeen others escaped the wreck in a long boat but most died of thirst long before they reached the coast of Yucatan. Perhaps they were the lucky ones. The survivors were captured by the Mayan

atural and the captain, Valdivia, and several others were

murdered. Only Aguilar and Norte had escaped. After a few days they were captured again, by a Mayan cacique who proved a more amenable than their first captor. He had even offered Aguilar his own daughter as a wife. As Aguilar told the story, he spent a whole night lying naked beside her in a village hut, but had saved himself from the sins of the flesh by taking refuge in his tattered copy of the Book of Hours. Norte had not proved as resilient and thus far Benitez was in sympathy with him. He understood Norte's carnality far better than Aguilar's self-imposed chastity. What he did not understand was Norte's later actions; how he could marry a heathen woman and have three children by her; how he could have his ears and lower lip pierced and his face and hands tattooed like a atural. The man was no better than a dog. When Jaramillo and the rest of the landing party found Norte on Cozumel Island he had tried to run away. Jaramillo would have murdered him with the rest of the aturals if it had not been for Aguilar's intervention.

He is a Spaniard just like us, he had said, imploring them to mercy. A Spaniard perhaps, Benitez thought. But not like any of us. "CortĂŠs should have hanged him," Jaramillo said over his shoulder."They could roast me over a small fire, I would never allow myself to be so humiliated." "When I found him he had stone plugs through his nose. And look at how his earlobes are torn. Aguilar says that it is a part of the devil worship in their temples." "He even stinks like an atura." "I should have slit his throat on the beach and to hell with it." "CortĂŠs says we need him and Aguilar to help us talk with the aturals." "Aguilar perhaps, but not him. How do we know what he will say to them?" Jaramillo spat into the sea. "I hear they sacrifice children in their temples. Afterwards they eat the flesh." Benitez shook his head. "I am no lover of priests but pray God we can bring salvation to these dark lands." Jaramillo grinned. "Pray God also that we are well rewarded for doing Him such service." *** Alaminos, the pilot, turned the fleet towards the river mouth. He had been with Grijalva the year before when they beached in this spot and the natives, who called themselves Tabascans, had shown themselves friendly. It was why CortĂŠs planned to make this his landing. The men gathered at the rail and watched the coastline resolve into palms and sand dunes. A New World waited for them, with dreams of gold and women and glory. End of Excerpt

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Another Book by Colin Falconer: Anastasia

About the Author

Find Colin Falconer at: or on Twitter at @colin_falconer

Born in north London, Colin Falconer worked for many years in TV and radio and freelanced for many of Australia's leading newspapers and magazines. He has been a novelist for the last twenty years, with his work published widely in the UK, US and Europe. His books have been translated into seventeen languages.

Copyright Page Who Dares Wins Publishing 445 Ridge Springs Drive Chapel Hill, NC 27516 This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance of fictional characters to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Revised edition copyright Š 2012 by Colin Falconer

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author and publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. Find Colin Falconer at Colin Falconer's blog at: or on Twitter at!/colin_falconer!/colin_falconer

Aztec by Colin Falconer  
Aztec by Colin Falconer  

The daughter if a prophet and the child slave of Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortes, the life of the Aztec princess Malinali is one of the mos...