MoboReader> Literature > The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico

   Chapter 11 THE COMBAT.

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 17137

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The champions for the god drew themselves up in the west, while their challengers occupied the east of the arena. This position of parties was the subject of much speculation with the spectators, who saw it might prove a point of great importance if the engagement assumed the form of single combats.

Considering age and appearance, the Tlascalans were adjudged most dangerous of the challengers,-a palm readily awarded to the Tezcucan and the 'tzin on their side. The common opinion held also, that the Cholulan, the youngest and least experienced of the Aztecs, should have been the antagonist of the elder Othmi, whose vigor was presumed to be affected by his age; as it was, that combat belonged to Tlahua, the Otompan, while the younger Othmi confronted the Cholulan.

And now the theatre grew profoundly still with expectancy.

"The day grows old. Let the signal be given." And so saying, the king waved his hand, and sunk indolently back upon his couch.

A moment after there was a burst of martial symphony, and the combat began.

It was opened with arrows; and to determine, if possible, the comparative skill of the combatants, the spectators watched the commencement with closest attention. The younger Othmi sent his missile straight into the shield of the Cholulan, who, from precipitation probably, was not so successful. The elder Othmi and his antagonist each planted his arrow fairly, as did Iztlil' and the Tlascalans. But a great outcry of applause attended Guatamozin, when his bolt, flying across the space, buried its barb in the crest of his adversary. A score of feathers, shorn away, floated slowly to the sand.

"It was well done; by Our Mother, it was well done!" murmured Hualpa.

"Wait!" said the Chalcan patronizingly. "Wait till they come to the maquahuitl!"

Quite a number of arrows were thus interchanged by the parties without effect, as they were always dexterously intercepted. The passage was but the preluding skirmish, participated in by all but the 'tzin, who, after his first shot, stood a little apart from his comrades, and, resting his long bow on the ground, watched the trial with apparent indifference. Like the Chalcan, he seemed to regard it as play; and the populace after a while fell into the same opinion: there was not enough danger to fully interest them. So there began to arise murmurs and cries, which the Cholulan was the first to observe and interpret. Under an impulse which had relation, probably, to his first failure, he resolved to avail himself of the growing feeling. Throwing down his bow, he seized the maquahuitl at his back, and, without a word to his friends, started impetuously across the arena. The peril was great, for every foeman at once turned his arrow against him.

Then the 'tzin stirred himself. "The boy is mad, and will die if we do not go with him," he said; and already his foot was advanced to follow, when the young Othmi sprang forward from the other side to meet the Cholulan.

The eagerness lest an incident should be lost became intense; even the king sat up to see the duel. The theatre rang with cries of encouragement,-none, however, so cheery as that of the elder Othmi, whose feelings of paternity were, for the moment, lost in his passion of warrior.

"On, boy! Remember the green hills, and the hammock by the stream. Strike hard, strike hard!"

The combatants were apparently well matched, being about equal in height and age; both brandished the maquahuitl, the deadliest weapon known to their wars. Wielded by both hands and swung high above the head, its blades of glass generally clove their way to the life. About midway the arena the foemen met. At the instant of contact the Cholulan brought a downward blow, well aimed, at the head of his antagonist; but the lithe Othmi, though at full speed, swerved like a bird on the wing. A great shout attested the appreciation of the audience. The Cholulan wheeled, with his weapon uplifted for another blow; the action called his left arm into play, and drew his shield from its guard. The Othmi saw the advantage. One step he took nearer, and then, with a sweep of his arm and an upward stroke, he drove every blade deep into the side of his enemy. The lifted weapon dropped in its half-finished circle, the shield flew wildly up, and, with a groan, the victim fell heavily to the sand, struggled once to rise, fell back again, and his battles were ended forever. A cry of anguish went out from under the royal canopy.

"Hark!" cried Xoli. "Did you hear the old Cholulan? See! They are leading him from the platform!"

Except that cry, however, not a voice was heard; from rising apprehension as to the result of the combat, or touched by a passing sympathy for the early death, the multitude was perfectly hushed.

"That was a brave blow, Xoli; but let him beware now!" said Hualpa, excitedly.

And in expectation of instant vengeance, all eyes watched the Othmi. Around the arena he glanced, then back to his friends. Retreat would forfeit the honor gained: death was preferable. So he knelt upon the breast of his enemy, and, setting his shield before him, waited sternly and in silence the result. And Iztlil' and Tlahua launched their arrows at him in quick succession, but Guatamozin was as indifferent as ever.

"What ails the 'tzin?" said Maxtla to the king. "The Othmi is at his mercy."

The monarch deigned no reply.

The spirit of the old Othmi rose. On the sand behind him, prepared for service, was a dart with three points of copper, and a long cord by which to recover it when once thrown. Catching the weapon up, and shouting, "I am coming, I am coming!" he ran to avert or share the danger. The space to be crossed was inconsiderable, yet such his animation that, as he ran, he poised the dart, and exposed his hand above the shield. The 'tzin raised his bow, and let the arrow fly. It struck right amongst the supple joints of the veteran's wrist. The unhappy man stopped bewildered; over the theatre he looked, then at the wound; in despair he tore the shaft out with his teeth, and rushed on till he reached the boy.

The outburst of acclamation shook the theatre.

"To have seen such archery, Xoli, were worth all the years of a hunter's life!" said Hualpa.

The Chalcan smiled like a connoisseur, and replied, "It is nothing. Wait!"

And now the combat again presented a show of equality. The advantage, if there was any, was thought to be with the Aztecs, since the loss of the Cholulan was not to be weighed against the disability of the Othmi. Thus the populace were released from apprehension, without any abatement of interest; indeed, the excitement increased, for there was a promise of change in the character of the contest; from quiet archery was growing bloody action.

The Tlascalans, alive to the necessity of supporting their friends, advanced to where the Cholulan lay, but more cautiously. When they were come up, the Othmies both arose, and calmly perfected the front. The astonishment at this was very great.

"Brave fellow! He is worth ten live Cholulans!" said Xoli. "But now look, boy! The challengers have advanced half-way; the Aztecs must meet them."

The conjecture was speedily verified. Iztlil' had, in fact, ill brooked the superior skill, or better fortune, of the 'tzin; the applause of the populace had been worse than wounds to his jealous heart. Till this time, however, he had restrained his passion; now the foe were ranged as if challenging attack: he threw away his useless bow, and laid his hand on his maquahuitl.

"It is not for an Aztec god that we are fighting, O comrade!" he cried to Tlahua. "It is for ourselves. Come, let us show yon king a better war!"

And without waiting, he set on. The Otompan followed, leaving the 'tzin alone. The call had not been to him, and as he was fighting for the god, and the Tezcucan for himself, he merely placed another arrow on his bow, and observed the attack.

Leaving the Otompan to engage the Othmies, the fierce Tezcucan assaulted the Tlascalans, an encounter in which there was no equality; but the eyes of Tenochtitlan were upon him, and at his back was a hated rival. His antagonists each sent an arrow to meet him; but, as he skilfully caught them on his shield, they, too, betook themselves to the maquahuitl. Right on he kept, until his shield struck theirs; it was gallantly done, and won a furious outburst from the people. Again Montezuma sat up, momentarily animated.

"Ah, my lord Cacama!" he said, "if your brother's love were but equ

al to his courage, I would give him an army."

"All the gods forfend!" replied the jealous prince. "The viper would recover his fangs."

The speed with which he went was all that saved Iztlil' from the blades of the Tlascalans. Striking no blow himself, he strove to make way between them, and get behind, so that, facing about to repel his returning onset, their backs would be to the 'tzin. But they were wary, and did not yield. As they pushed against him, one, dropping his more cumbrous weapon, struck him in the breast with a copper knife. The blow was distinctly seen by the spectators.

Hualpa started from his seat. "He has it; they will finish him now! No, he recovers. Our Mother, what a blow!"

The Tezcucan disengaged himself, and, maddened by the blood that began to flow down his quilted armor, assaulted furiously. He was strong, quick of eye, and skilful; the blades of his weapon gleamed in circles around his head, and resounded against the shields. At length a desperate blow beat down the guard of one of the Tlascalans; ere it could be recovered, or Iztlil' avail himself of the advantage, there came a sharp whirring through the air, and an arrow from the 'tzin pierced to the warrior's heart. Up he leaped, dead before he touched the sand. Again Iztlil' heard the acclamation of his rival. Without a pause, he rushed upon the surviving Tlascalan, as if to bear him down by stormy dint.

Meantime, the combat of Tlahua, the Otompan, was not without its difficulties, since it was not singly with the young Othmi.

"Mictlan take the old man!" cried the lord Cuitlahua, bending from his seat. "I thought him done for; but, see! he defends, the other fights."

And so it was. The Otompan struck hard, but was distracted by the tactics of his foemen: if he aimed at the younger, both their shields warded the blow; if he assaulted the elder, he was in turn attacked by the younger; and so, without advantage to either, their strife continued until the fall of the Tlascalan. Then, inspired by despairing valor, the boy threw down his maquahuitl, and endeavored to push aside the Otompan's shield. Once within its guard, the knife would finish the contest. Tlahua retreated; but the foe clung to him,-one wrenching at his shield, the other intercepting his blows, and both carefully avoiding the deadly archery of the 'tzin, who, seeing the extremity of the danger, started to the rescue. All the people shouted, "The 'tzin, the 'tzin!" Xoli burst into ecstasy, and clapped his hands. "There he goes! Now look for something!"

The rescuer went as a swift wind; but the clamor had been as a warning to the young Othmi. By a great effort he tore away the Otompan's shield. In vain the latter struggled. There was a flash, sharp, vivid, like the sparkle of the sun upon restless waters. Then his head drooped forward, and he staggered blindly. Once only the death-stroke was repeated; and so still was the multitude that the dull sound of the knife driving home was heard. The 'tzin was too late.

The prospect for the Aztecs was now gloomy. The Cholulan and Otompan were dead; the Tezcucan, wounded and bleeding, was engaged in a doubtful struggle with the Tlascalan; the 'tzin was the last hope of his party. Upon him devolved the fight with the Othmies. In the interest thus excited Iztlil's battle was forgotten.

Twice had the younger Othmi been victor, and still he was scathless. Instead of the maquahuitl, he was now armed with the javelin, which, while effective as a dart, was excellent to repel assault.

From the crowded seats of the theatre not a sound was heard. At no time had the excitement risen to such a pitch. Breathless and motionless, the spectators awaited the advance of the 'tzin. He was, as I have said, a general favorite, beloved by priest and citizen, and with the wild soldiery an object of rude idolatry. And if, under the royal canopy there were eyes that looked not lovingly upon him, there were lips there murmuring soft words of prayer for his success.

When within a few steps of the waiting Othmies, he halted. They glared at him an instant in silence; then the old chief said tauntingly, and loud enough to be heard above the noise of the conflict at his side,-

"A woman may wield a bow, and from a distance slay a warrior; but the maquahuitl is heavy in the hand of the coward, looking in the face of his foeman."

The Aztec made no answer; he was familiar with the wile. Looking at the speaker as if against him he intended his first attack, with right hand back he swung the heavy weapon above his shoulder till it sung in quickening circles; when its force was fully collected, he suddenly hurled it from him. The old Othmi crouched low behind his shield: but his was not the form in the 'tzin's eyes; for right in the centre of the young victor's guard the flying danger struck. Nor arm nor shield might bar its way. The boy was lifted sheer above the body of the Otompan, and driven backward as if shot from a catapult.

Guatamozin advanced no further. A thrust of his javelin would have disposed of the old Othmi, now unarmed and helpless. The acclamation of the audience, in which was blent the shrill voices of women, failed to arouse his passion.

The sturdy chief arose from his crouching; he looked for the boy to whom he had so lately spoken of home; he saw him lying outstretched, his face in the sand, and his shield, so often bound with wreaths and garlands, twain-broken beneath him; and his will, that in the fight had been tougher than the gold of his bracelets, gave way; forgetful of all else, he ran, and, with a great cry, threw himself upon the body.

The Chalcan was as exultant as if the achievement had been his own. Even the prouder souls under the red canopy yielded their tardy praise; only the king was silent.

As none now remained of the challengers but the Tlascalan occupied with Iztlil',-none whom he might in honor engage,-Guatamozin moved away from the Othmies; and as he went, once he allowed his glance to wander to the royal platform, but with thought of love, not wrong.

The attention of the people was again directed to the combat of the Tezcucan. The death of his comrades nowise daunted the Tlascalan; he rather struck the harder for revenge; his shield was racked, the feathers in his crest torn away, while the blades were red with his blood. Still it fared but ill with Iztlil' fighting for himself. His wound in the breast bled freely, and his equipments were in no better plight than his antagonist's. The struggle was that of the hewing and hacking which, whether giving or taking, soon exhausts the strongest frame. At last, faint with loss of blood, he went down. The Tlascalan attempted to strike a final blow, but darkness rushed upon him; he staggered, the blades sunk into the sand, and he rolled beside his enemy.

With that the combat was done. The challengers might not behold their "land of bread" again; nevermore for them was hammock by the stream or echo of tambour amongst the hills.

And all the multitude arose and gave way to their rejoicing; they embraced each other, and shouted and sang; the pabas waved their ensigns, and the soldiers saluted with voice and pealing shells; and up to the sun ascended the name of Quetzal' with form and circumstance to soften the mood of the most demanding god; but all the time the audience saw only the fortunate hero, standing so calmly before them, the dead at his feet, and the golden light about him.

And the king was happy as the rest, and talked gayly, caring little for the living or the dead. The combat was over, and Quetzal' not come. Mualox was a madman, not a prophet; the Aztecs had won, and the god was propitiated: so the questioner of the Morning flattered himself!

"If the Othmi cannot fight, he can serve for sacrifice. Let him be removed. And the dead-But hold!" he cried, and his cheeks blanched with mortal pallor. "Who comes yonder? Look to the arena,-nay, to the people! By my father's ashes, the paba shall perish! White hairs and prophet's gifts shall not save him."

While the king was speaking, Mualox, the keeper of the temple, rushed within the wall of shields. His dress was disordered, and he was bareheaded and unsandalled. Over his shoulders and down his breast flowed his hair and beard, tangled and unkempt, wavy as a billow and white as the foam. Excitement flashed from every feature; and far as his vision ranged,-in every quarter, on every platform,-in the blood of others he kindled his own unwonted passion.

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