Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter IX

Maxatla Speaks

THOUGH unobserved by Boots, when the canoe was dragged to the galley’s side, two other events took place simultaneously with its capture.

Far away at the end of the black cliff a boat rushed out of some invisible harbor, propelled by six oarsmen of such unusual muscle that the heavy vessel seemed fairly to leap from the water at every stroke.

And nearer at hand another galley, heading leisurely toward Tonathiutl, suddenly diverted its course and swept down toward the master priest’s craft.

The prow of this second galley bore a strange figurehead — the reared body of a gigantic serpent, crested with feathers like a heron, a collar of plumes about its golden neck.

Boots looked straight up into Topiltzen’s leering face. The lesser priestlings had left their postures of adoration and crowded to the side, threatening hands outstretched to drag on board the insulters of their chief.

The Irishman did not wait to be dragged. A kneeling position in a light canoe is impossible to spring from, but, reaching up, he got handhold on some massive carving under the galley’s bulwark. That was enough. He came over the side, agile as a sailor, leaving the girl in a madly rocking but uncapsized canoe.

Topiltzen, confronted by an unexpectedly aggressive foe, tried to retreat, tripped over his own flowing mantle, and a moment later was clasped tight to Boots’ breast. It had all happened too quickly for interference. But now the under-priests closed in, and down the vessel’s length the stalwart rowers dropped their blades and came surging toward the bow in a jostling mob.

Boots swung the fat, kicking little man in his arms toward the side. A stout girdle held the white and black emblem about Topiltzen’s middle and it offered a grip.

The master priest of Nacoc-Yaotl suddenly found himself dangling in mid-air above the silver flood, while a great voice shattered the hushed quiet of Tlapallan:

“Get back! Get back, the whole pack of you — or down he goes!”

Even to those who could not understand the words, Boots’ meaning was unmistakable. It brought them all to a stand.

Topiltzen squeaked like a rabbit. Though the girdle had cut off his wind, he prayed that it might hold. Swimming was little good to a man when Tonathiu charged the waters with heatless fire.

“Cast off that iron!” Boots indicated the canoe with a bob of his parrot-crested head. The man who grasped the light cable attached to the grappling iron hesitated and looked toward the priests for orders. One of them shook his head slightly.

“Cast off!” roared Boots, and lowered his captive a foot nearer the water.

The threat should have been effective, but it wasn’t. Not a man stirred or spoke, and Boots had a sudden creepy doubt that he had been shouting at fantoms. The shadows were all wrong — the sky was under him — he faced a throng of weird, silent, feather-decked ghosts and threatened to drop the chief of them into the sky! No, that was no ghost in his hands — it was too heavy. But why did none of them move or answer him? Boots blinked and cast a wild glance outward, seeking the solidity of the hills to restore his mental balance.

Then the loop of a rope dropped over his head and shoulders.

That little event had been what they were waiting for. No bodiless fantoms ever rushed in on a victim with such a weight of flesh and strength of brawn.

Unfortunately for Topiltzen, however, the caster of that rope had miscalculated. He had meant to jerk the stranger so suddenly inboard that the master priest would come with him; but quick though a man may be, it is easier to relax muscles than to flex them.

As the rope touched his chest, Boots let go, and with one gurgling cry the priest splashed and vanished in the light beneath.

But on the quarter-deck poor Boots was hopelessly outnumbered. Underman to start with, his arms encumbered by the rope, he had not the shadow of a chance, and at the end of a brief struggle he rose, a bound and battered prisoner, grasped on either side by one of the stalwart crew.

Worse still, as the press cleared away from about him, he saw a bedraggled figure hauled over the bulwark by a dozen solicitous hands. It was Topiltzen, and though he promptly subsided on the deck, he was unquestionably alive.

In the midst of defeat, Boots grinned. He knew from personal experience that the master priest had at least endured a punishment he would not forget in a hurry.

And just at that moment, while the attention of all was focused on the prisoner, and on the limp and furious Topiltzen, there came one long, splintering crash.

Every oar in the starboard bank smashed to flinders, as the galley of the Feathered Serpent plowed ruthlessly alongside.

Nacoc-Yaotl’s followers turned to meet the rush of a wave of silent assailants. They came leaping across the bulwark, leaving the serpent-headed craft to drift or stay as it might, and fell upon the startled defenders so suddenly that the latter were almost driven over the side in a body. Two or three did go over, but no one was bothering to offer a rescue then.

Battle swept up and down the galley, among the rowers’ seats, in the open way between them; an indiscriminate whirl of interlocked limbs, flying plumes, and fierce white faces.

Boots’ two guards were lost in the mêlée, and he made frantic efforts to break his bonds. Though unable to distinguish attackers from attacked, it was a most glorious shindy, and he longed to plunge into it.

But for once in his life he found he must watch a fight and take no part in it. In despair of freedom, he at last resigned himself to look on in silent admiration.

Silent! It suddenly struck him that here was the most remarkable battle ever fought. They were all silent. Save for the thud of blows, the crash of broken boat seats, or an occasional splash when some unfortunate descended into the spirit of Tonathiu, there was not a sound.

No yells, no groans, no battle-cries. And no weapons, either. It was hand to throat and fist to body, with never a sword or spear to grace it.

But they were men, the Tlapallans! Surrender was not in them. Until hammered into insensibility, or driven over the side, they would fight, and since both galleys had carried about the same complement, and they equally matched in sinew and stubbornness, the combat promised an indefinite duration.

And so it might have been, save for an unexpected intervention from without.

Up over the stern they came, white, stark, and terrible. They wore no plumes, those six. Their height required no headdress to increase it. Towering head and shoulders above the tallest fighter there, the galley warriors were as children before them.

Some, blind with rage, attempted to face that mighty onset, but the majority knew better. When the giant Guardians of the Hills took the field, lesser men stood out of their path or perished.

In this case short work was made of the resisters. Where a man was struck down, there he lay, and in a very few minutes peace reigned aboard the galley of Nacoc-Yaotl.

Then, and not till then, Boots remembered the girl. In the press of exciting events she had clean slipped from his mind, and when with a start of self-reproach he at last turned to look for her, the canoe was gone.

Moreover he discovered that the battle had been by no means without spectators. Very much as in more ordinary cities the crowds will gather to watch a fight, so the lake craft had swarmed in, until the contending galleys were almost entirely surrounded.

They were very quiet about it, though. There was something almost stealthy in the silent, eager, curiosity of those innumerable faces that thronged the decks and peered from every available vantage point.

In that still water, the serpent galley had drifted only a few feet from her victim, and by the time Boots’ attention returned to them most of her crew who were able had sprung lightly back aboard.

The six gigantic peacemakers were advancing toward the quarterdeck, followed by a limping and disheveled crowd, and among them were three figures which Boots immediately recognized.

The group which presently gathered about the Irishman was a curiously assorted one.

There was Topiltzen, still a survivor, but one mass of cuts and bruises and with none of his finery left save the white-and-black emblem.

There were six white giants of proportions which Boots could only view with envious admiration.

There was the moth-girl, who with two of the others had come aboard in the peacemakers’ wake. She had picked her way daintily through the wreckage, and now beamed upon her red-haired protégé from the arm of a tall, stern young man, whose head-dress of a crested serpent proclaimed him one of the invaders.

There was also Svend Biornson, his neat modern clothes giving a touch of the theatrical to all the rest; and last there was the gentleman who had returned into Nacoc-Yaotl’s temple for dread of the white lake. Coatless, shirt half torn off, and his arms bound behind him, Archer Kennedy looked as if he had been through the wars himself. But his spirit seemed to have suffered the worst shock. His lips twitched continually, his whole body shook in spasms of trembling like a nervous horse, and he met Boots’ half-amused, half-resigned: “You, too, Mr. Kennedy!” with a blank, unrecognizing stare.

“Well,” began Biornson, his marred face grim and angry. “I see that you have recovered from your wounds enough to be about, O’Hara.”

“I’ve had the evening of me life! Did you find Xolotl?”

“We did,” was the stern retort. But before he could say more, the wreck which had been Topiltzen broke in with a torrent of low-voiced accusation. At least, Boots judged it to be accusation, though to him it was no more intelligible than the scolding of an angry sparrow.

Presently he said something that the Moth-Girl appeared to resent. With flushed cheeks and flashing eyes, she broke into the stream with a few remarks of her own; the young man beside her took it up, and they all talked at once with the energy and indifference to polite usage common among very angry people the world over.

The only word Boots understood was “Xolotl,” and, that was tossed from mouth to mouth with significant frequency.

Biornson began cutting in with placative intent, but his sole success was in diverting a large share of the indignation to himself. At last, as he threw up his hands in despair, one of the six giants who had been grinning in the background with distinctly human amusement, strode forward and uttered a curt sentence.

Argument ceased. Even Topiltzen, who, red with fury, had been shaking his fist in Biornson’s very face, subsided instantly. As an arbiter, Boots thought the giant admirably successful, but Biornson did not seem to share the opinion. He turned away with an air of dejection which flared into bitterness as he came face to face with the Irishman.

You are responsible for this!” he accused. “In two hours, O’Hara, you have wrecked the consummation of five years of faithful effort!”

“Why, Mr. Biornson, what harm did I do?” protested Boots. “The jailer-lad wasn’t hurt to speak of, except maybe in his feelings, and as for the little lady, we only took a bit of a ride on the lake. You can ask herself —— ”

“I don’t need to ask herself. If civil war is the result of tonight’s work, you are the one primarily responsible. Quetzalcoatl rules the lake; Nacoc-Yaotl, the surrounding shores. There has always been an undercurrent of rivalry and hard feeling. Why, in past years the guardians, who are chosen from all the gilds and are neutral by oath, have shed more blood policing Tlapallan than in keeping the hills free of invasion.

“For years I have been trying to patch up the quarrel. I thought that I had succeeded, when the Gild of Quetzalcoatl consented that the daughter of their master priest should marry the son of Topiltzen, priest of Nacoc-Yaotl. But naturally, when she appeared on the lake with a stranger who wore Xolotl’s garments of honor, Topiltzen was wild.

“Wasn’t it enough for you to half-kill the boy, without disgracing him? He swears he will never show his face on the lake again! And to crown the insult you dropped his father overboard, and for reasons best known to herself the young lady signaled a galley of Quetzalcoatl to offer you a violent rescue. Now she declares her intention to marry my lord Maxatla, the captain of that galley, and Topiltzen is willing that she should.

“He says that Xolotl has been dishonored, and no child of his shall ever mate with a daughter of the Feathered Serpent. He says that reconciliation is impossible, and I very much fear he is right. That is the sum total of your evening’s pleasure, young man, and I hope you are satisfied with it!”

Boots, who was trying to look properly overcome, just then caught the Moth-Girl’s eye. There was a twinkle in it that he found irresistible.

“Yes, grin!” Biornson’s exasperation was complete. “Trust an Irishman to think civil war delightfully amusing! confound you! I might have known by the color of your hair —— ”

“But Mr. Biornson —— ”

Boots stopped. A certain lovely young trouble-maker had used him ruthlessly for her own ends, and he was not too stupid to see it. He rather suspected that this sudden affair with “my lord Maxatla” was not half so sudden at it seemed. That careless offer of hers to marry Boots — perhaps — had been mere bait to keep interested one in whom she foresaw a glorious casus belli with her loathed fiancé’s entire gild.

Well, she had got her wish — and her love as well, for Maxatla did not look the man to give up his sweetheart lightly, once promised.

But Boots could not defend himself on those lines. The inbred chivalry of him forbade it.

“You saved my life,” snapped Biornson, as if that were an added grievance. “I tried to help you in return, but this night’s work is too much. You and Kennedy are a pair. You are both forfeit to Nacoc-Yaotl — he because he was caught prying into the most sacred of mysteries, you for offering violence to the body of Topiltzen. Let them take you! My intervention is finished.”

A gleam of satisfaction came into the master-priest’s small eyes, but the Moth-Girl whispered a word to her young captain. He nodded, then with a slight bow to the guardians came forward and laid a hand on the bound Irishman’s shoulder.

“My lord Svend,” he said with stern dignity, “I believe that the Feathered Serpent is still supreme in Tlapallan. I claim this man in his name. He was wrongfully made prisoner while defending a daughter of Quetzalcoatl from the insults and violence of those who have no place on these waters save by tolerance. Under their oath to uphold the law, I call upon the guardians to support my intention. This man is Quetzalcoatl’s . Let any son of Nacoc-Yaotl lay hand on him at his peril!”

Biornson frowned, but anxiety again had the upper hand of irritation. It had not been revealed to Boots exactly what position the man held in this unusual community, where the most common passions and rivalries of the human race were enacted against a background so weird and strange that it seemed only to be accounted for on a basis of the supernatural. But whatever his influence, it was sufficient in this case to avert the hostilities which Maxatla’s challenge had threatened to reopen.

“Lord Maxatla,” he answered, “no man has a higher respect for the Feathered Serpent than I. I spoke too hastily out of anger, but this is not a matter to be settled here. Will it satisfy you if both prisoners are held, and their cases decided before the council of gilds, as was first intended?”

“Held in the power of Nacoc-Yaotl?” demanded the other scornfully. “No!”

“Held in personal charge by the guardians,” substituted Biornson patiently. “They will do this thing, I believe, for the sake of peace in Tlapallan.”

“You are right, my lord Svend.” The giant who had spoken before pushed Maxatla gently but firmly aside and laid his own enormous hand on Boots. “This is for the council to decide. We, Guardians of the Hills, and Keepers of the Peace of Tlapallan, take these two prisoners in our keeping. Do I speak well, my brothers?”

“You speak well,” confirmed his five companions, and their voices, soft and murmurous as the night-wind, carried a decision that no man there dared question.

In a fold of the hills, a dim, twilight valley, where the verdure grew scant and starved between scattered boulders, a group of men had halted.

Though the sky was black above, the valley was grayly visible in what seemed a perpetual and never-growing dawn. It was the light of invisible Tlapallan, reflected and diffused from the rocks at the valley’s entrance.

Scarcely an hour had elapsed since the prisoners passed into the guardians’ charge. Carried ashore in the latter’s low black boat, instead of being escorted to another prison, they were brought here. After disembarking, the whole company turned their faces to the hills, and only halted again when shut from the glittering lake by the walls of this desolate valley.

There was a foreboding of secret evil in the manner of all their keepers.

By Biornson’s first words, the suspicion was no idle one.

“You saved my life, O’Hara, but I would rather have died than seen this feud reopened. You think it a light matter. A few lives lost, perhaps, and a few heads broken — the sort of riot-play you Irish delight in. But Donnybrook Fair is not so far from Tlapallan as the ways of its people from your ways.

“Nacoc-Yaotl has horrors in command beyond all thinking by one who has not seen his power. The Feathered Serpent will fight fire with fire, and even the lesser gilds control forces that, if turned loose on the world, might almost wreck civilization. Only the delicate counterbalance of power and certain religious traditions have kept Tlapallan from long ago destroying itself. But I know that Nacoc-Yaotl grows restive ——

“Nacoc-Yaotl,” continued Biornson in a changed voice, “would dwell in peace with the other gods, and to drive him into anger is folly. Therefore you, O’Hara, must leave Tlapallan. Quetzalcoatl has no possible claim on your mate, and the council will give him up to the priests whose mysteries he has pried into. But over you there would surely be fighting. Young Maxatla stands high in our gild, and having once claimed you he will never draw back. So you must — escape tonight, friend O’Hara.

“Will you believe me when I say that to save these adopted people of mine — and to prevent another possible thing I can’t speak of — I would condemn myself as readily as you?

“You will be taken blindfold far out into the desert, left so bound that by effort you may free yourself, and the rest — will be between you and the drifting sands.”

“Food and drink?”

“If you can find them. Goodby, O’Hara, and though you won’t believe it — I am sorry.”

“Goodby,” said Boots curtly, and as he felt himself gripped by two of his warders, he turned to go without another word of farewell.

But at that Kennedy came to life with a sudden vain leap against the hands that instantly restrained him. Struggling desperately, he called. after his mate as he had called in the desert, his voice like a wailing cry:

“Don’t leave me, Boots! Don’t leave me with these fiends! If you leave me it will be worse than murder — worse, do you understand? I will tell you what I saw — I will tell you —— ”

The cry died as a heavy hand closed over his mouth, and he could only watch with agonized eyes as his mate was led helplessly away.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30