Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter VII

The Cloak of Xolotl

“’TIS THE little lady of the fire moths.” Boots knelt up straight and beamed upon his vis-à-vis like one who welcomes an old acquaintance. Impelled by a deft and vigorous paddle, the canoe had swiftly left the landing float, shot across what seemed a wide band of blinding fire, and now, some hundred yards from shore, Boots found the radiance much less intolerable. In fact, he could see very well, and his first glance was not for the islands nor the island craft, but toward the girl who had apparently taken him under authoritative protection.

“If you jump about so, we shall be upset,” she admonished him.

“I’ll not move a finger more,” cried Boots, “for I can think of nothing more misfortunate than to end an acquaintance before it is fairly begun. Did you know me at first sight then, as I knew you?”

She tried to look serious and demure, but the effort ended in irrepressible merriment.

“Oh,” she cried softly, “how could one help but know you? You are — you are so different to look at from my brothers of Tlapallan!”

Self-consciousness claimed him again, and if his face was red before it was flaming now.

“The costume of your country is a fine, handsome selection, but maybe it’s not so becoming to an Irishman.”

“But I like you different! I would have you tell how it is, though, that you are wearing Xolotl’s head and his cloak of honor. Did he give them to you for friendship?”

“You might say so.” Boots surmised that Xolotl was the vanquished jailer, and caution seemed advisable. Then a gleam in those amused, dark eyes warned him. “You know otherwise!” he accused.

“I hope you did not kill him,” she answered reflectively. “If you killed him, being a stranger, they may give you to Nacoc-Yaotl. Did you kill him?”

Had she been asking the time of night the question could have been no more indifferent.

“No,” said Boots, shocked into curtness.

The mischievous smile flashed across her lips again.

“Then I shall laugh at him! Xolotl is a boaster. He thinks he should run the hills with the guardians. But he is only a small boy, grown tall and large. Some day, since he is not dead, and when he has finished his novitiate to Nacoc-Yaotl, I shall — what is my lord Svend’s word? — I shall marry him; but I shall always laugh because you took away his cloak of honor.”

With another mental gasp, Boots attempted changing the subject.

“It’s fine English you speak. You maybe learned from Mr. Biornson?”

“Oh; all of my gild speak English. When I was only a little baby, my lord Svend came. Though he was a stranger, they spared him because of his wisdom and his knowledge of the gods. It had been thought that the gods were forgotten save in Tlapallan. But he spoke our tongue, and later he mated - married with a daughter of Quetzalcoatl. That brought him into our gild, though for some strange reason he will not live in Tlapallan, but built him a house in the lower valley. Very soon it became — what was that phrase of Astrid’s — oh, yes, all the rage, to use English. The other gilds have picked up a little, too, but we never encourage them. Don’t you think it sounds much more distinguished than the old-fashioned tongue?”

“Maybe; but when you speak your own language it sounds like a bird singing.”

“But birds are so common, aren’t they? See! There is Tonathiutl. If you do not care to serve Tlaloc, become the son of Tonathiu, who is sometimes as red as your beautiful, painted hair. Then perhaps I shall marry you instead of Xolotl!”

She said it with the air of one bestowing some incredible hope of favor, but things were moving a little fast for Boots. Lovely though she was, here cold-blooded reference to poor Xolotl’s demise, and her equally cold-blooded annexation of himself, went clean outside the Irishman’s notions of propriety.

“I’ll think of it,” he muttered, and for the first time really gave heed to his surroundings outside the canoe.

They had come well out on the liquid silver shield beneath which, according to the faith of Tlapallan, Tonathiu, the sun-god lurked throughout those hours when the rest of the world was dark and deserted of his spirit. Therefore at night and through night only they gleamed like Mezkli, the moon, and were terrible to touch as the superheated body of Mictlanteuctli, lord of hell.

So Boots was informed, as he gazed with great curiosity at the god’s house. It was the first “heathen temple” he had ever seen where the worship was living, and not a mere dusty memory of the past.

Tonathiutl, smallest of the islands, was also nearest to the shore they had recently quitted. Unlike the others, it was low and flat, and the round structure which almost filled its circumference stood scarcely ten feet high. Nothing showed above the walls, and Boots, who had noted it from the cliff, recalled that the roof was flat as a pancake.

It was all built of something that he took for brass, though Kennedy, had he been present, would have better judged the metal’s value. Doors and windows there were none, save one low arched aperture, and altogether it did not in the least fit with Boots’ idea of a temple.

“It goes down,” explained the girl. “What you see is only the top. It goes far down, and there, below, Tonathiu slumbers in the midst of a circle of his priests. Should one, even one, of his sons sleep in these hours, Tonathiu would never climb the heavens again. He would die. Then Tlapallan and all Anahuac (Mexico) would perish in a darkness having no end. Is that not terrible fear? If you become a son of Tonathiu, you must never sleep at night. Do you ever sleep when you shouldn’t?”

“More often than not,” Boots hastily assured her. Whatever force it was that charged the waters, even his elementary knowledge of astronomy sensed a discrepancy between her version of “Tonathiu’s “ habits and the actual facts. But he could see no profit in arguing the matter, and just so he kept clear of any promise likely to involve him in strange religions, he was content to accept her statements as they were made.

“Here come Topiltzen, Nacoc-Yaotl’s master priests,” she suddenly announced, pointing to a galley of twenty oars which at this moment surged majestically past. “Look! There he stands near the bow, with the others crouched down around him. Tell me, is he not a fat, ugly, disagreeable old man?”

The individual in question, who stood pompously erect in the midst of an adoring circle on the quarter-deck, his fat paunch covered by a white and black emblem, draped in a feathered mantle of black, white, and green, might almost have heard the girl’s remark. He whirled sharply and glared toward their canoe with pudgy mouth pursed and scowling brows.

“Are you not afeared to speak of your priests so disrespectfully?” queried Boots.

She shrugged high disdain.

“I am a daughter of Quetzalcoatl. My head need not bow to those of the lesser gilds. Did you see him look at you? He knew you for a stranger. If he dared he would take you for the mysteries; but fear nothing. You are with me and Quetzalcoatl guards his own. Even Nacoc-Yaotl cannot take you from me — or I think he could not!”

She looked back toward the cliff they had left, and Boots’ eyes followed hers. Now he saw what nearness had before shut from him. The dead-black rock was topped by a long, even wall of white stone. Above it rose the pale heights of a stupendous building.

In that building he and his mate had been imprisoned, and it seemed strange now to Boots that this had been so — well nigh impossible that for nine days they had dwelt in that vast place, and remained as unconscious of its vastness as are coral insects of the mighty reef they inhabit.

It was a structure so large, so ruggedly massive, as to suggest one of nature’s rock castles, though its lines were too regular for that. Like the temple of the sun, it was blank of windows, but unlike that smaller temple it was neither round nor flat-roofed A hundred turrets crowned it, and out of the very midst of them there curved a titanic white dome.

The dome form is one of the glories of architecture, but this one distinctly failed of beauty. It was squat — ugly. It was as though the round top of an incredibly large white fungus had sprouted among the turrets and been allowed to remain because of its bulls and inaccessibility.

But the whole structure was in some indefinable way — oppressive.

It had not been for fear’s sake that Boots had left it and descended to the lake, but now, without knowing why, he felt sure that his course had been wiser as well as more reckless than Kennedy’s .

Kennedy had returned into those blind, white depths. That foolish, protective instinct of Boots rose up at the thought. No matter what else Kennedy was, he was a poor, weak thing — and Boots’ mate. Should he go after him? Better get the good of some information, first.

He asked the building’s purpose.

“That is the seat of Nacoc-Yaotl.” A somber look shadowed the girl’s mischievous face. “Nacoc-Yaotl, the black maker of hatreds, who would destroy mankind if he could. Some day they say that he will destroy Tlapallan, but I do not believe it. Our lord of the air, Quetzalcoatl, who was once human and is noblest of all the gods, is stronger than he. How they must hate each other, those great, strong gods! Would you not like to watch a battle between gods?”

“‘Twould be a destructive spectacle. Watch yourself! Watch — out!”

His shout of warning came barely in time. With two swift thrusts of her paddle, the girl shot them out of the path of a galley of twenty oars. It swept on by, and from near the bow glared Nacoc-Yaotl’s master priest, thwarted malice in every line of his fat, furious face.

“He did hear you!” cried Boots. “And the old devil tried to run us down!”

The girl’s face was sternly calm, but her eyes blazed with a rage more deadly than the priest’s.

“I meant he should hear me,” she said quietly. “Topiltzen is the mortal father of Xolotl, whom I despise!”

The galley had wheeled again and was heading back toward them.

“Paddle!” urged Boots desperately. “Paddle — or let me!”

He stretched a hand, but the girl only shook her head and watched the oncoming galley with quiet scorn.

“Now you will hear him apologize,” she said. “It was an accident for which the poor steersman will suffer. I am a daughter of Quetzalcoatl, who guards his own, and even Topiltzen will not dare admit that attack was intended. But had we been cut in two, as was meant, you would have died and I would have been let suffer the pain of Tonathiu’s spirit for more than a little before they picked me up. Oh, I hate Xolotl and all the black god’s cruel gild! Son of O’Hara, I wish that you had slain Xolotl!”

“Faith, I’m beginning to think you’ve cause to wish it. Look at the old fat villain bowing there!”

The galley’s rowers were resting on their oars. Every face on board was turned toward them, and the master priest himself had crossed the quarterdeck and bent his head with a respect rather mocking, under the circumstances.

This was Boots’ first view at close range of any of the men of Tlapallan. They were all white men — whiter than himself, to speak the truth — and yet, by certain subtle differences, Boots was quite sure they were not “white men” in the generally accepted sense. Whether or not Kennedy was right to call them “Indians,” they were certainly of another than the Caucasian race.

Straight, black hair fell to their shoulders from beneath various fantastic head-dresses, fashioned to represent brightly colored beasts and birds. Such garments as they wore were of gaily hued cotton cloth, or the same downy, feathery stuff that the moth-girl was dressed in. Feather mantles like the one Boots had borrowed were worn by all save the rowers, whose attire was restricted to a broad girdle or a kilt.

Black-browed, straight-nosed, broad of shoulder and well muscled, they were as fine looking a set as Boots had ever set eyes on, and no more comparable to the common Indian tribes of Mexico than a Japanese of the “Sumurai” caste to a low-class Kolarian.

In the matter of athleticism, however, Topiltzen was an exception. He was a short, fat, pudgy little person, and the black scowl he wore now did not add to his beauty.

When he spoke it was in that hushed tone used by all in Tlapallan, as if it were some vast hospital in which the patients must on no account be awakened.

“Speak English,” the girl interrupted curtly. “My friend here, the son of that great and powerful god, O’Hara, does not use our tongue.”

The priest straightened and stared balefully at the “son of O’Hara,” more balefully at the girl. His English was bad, and she knew it — a petty embarrassment to put on her future father-in-law, but everything counts in war.

“Where,” said the priest, slowly and painfully, “Xolotl — thee head — thee cloak — I see — look hard — no Xolotl —— ”

Breaking off in despair, he waved expressive hands toward Boots.

“You mean, I suppose,” the girl was loftily superior “that you would have run us down in order to see if my friend here was Xolotl. Yes, it is the head of Xolotl. It is the cloak of Xolotl. But my friend is not Xolotl. He is a man much stronger and more courageous, and that is why he wears Xolotl’s cloak of honor. Look very close indeed. You quite see, do you not?”

But that insolence was too much for Xolotl’s father, who understood English better than he spoke it. With a snort of rage he whirled and addressed a hushed command to someone behind him.

Instantly, a man sprang to the side. The girl dipped her paddle in earnest now, but too late to avoid the fling of a small grappling iron, which fairly caught their bow.

Hand over hand they were hauled ignominiously in, while Topiltzen, no longer obsequious, grinned at them in obese triumph.

It occurred to Boots that the might of his arms was going to be of more immediate service than any protection Quetzalcoatl, or any other of Tlapallan’s numerous gods, seemed likely to offer.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00