The largest and greatest city in the world, and for once in the night there were no sounds to be heard. No hushed conversations of its citizens, no clamor from the royal dwellings. Only the sounds of crickets and other insects emanated from the lakes and gardens and canals of the city. Fires burned on the tops of the temples, and in the captive palaces; the only sources of light beyond the moon and stars. The entirety of the city waited for the next day.
Cenyautl rested by his spear and shield, drifting in and out of sleep, along with the rest of the men keeping watch over the palaces. Some whispered that the Spaniards stabbed or strangled the former emperor Moctezuma the day after he had plead for them to lay down their arms and cease attacking the Spaniards. It didn’t matter. Moctezuma shamed himself by siding with the invaders. His brother, Cuitláhuac, now ruled, Moctezuma being pelted by rocks before the Spaniards dragged him back inside. They released Cuitláhuac so that he would convince the warriors besieging the Spaniards to surrender. He immediately seized the crown and rallied the Aztec warriors.
Cenyautl got up to relieve himself. Cuitláhuac will drive out the outsiders, not invite them into his home. Rumor ran everywhere, but the general gist Cenyautl got was that Moctezuma entertained the Spaniards in his own house. Then one day the nobles celebrated a festival. Without provocation, the Spaniards attacked and killed everyone in attendance. This happened a couple days ago, and Cenyautl and the rest of the warriors in the capital attacked with fury, but were unable to dislodge the Spaniards or their Tlaxcalan allies from the palace. So they and the rest of the city waited.
As Cenyautl returned, a woman’s cry came from his left. “Mexica, come quickly! Our enemies flee. They run like cowards in the night!” Indistinguishable shouting rose up and accompanied Cenyautl on his dash towards his gear. Someone began beating a drum.
Cenyautl grabbed his spear, a length of wood ending in a razor sharp tip of flint, and joined the rush of nearby warriors. Some nobles and officers were already dressed, leading their troops towards the clamor of fighting. Who fights out of the view of the sun? More drums, and a couple horns blew. Cenyautl could not find anyone he knew nearby, but knew where to go. They rounded a corner.
The Spaniards and Tlaxcalans barely staved off the surrounding warriors while attempting to flee the city as fast as possible. They were forced to make a desperate push for each bridge, each causeway. The Mexican warriors, for their part, attacked at every opportunity, clubbing and stabbing the invaders when their guard dropped for even a moment. The streets were dark and chaotic, Cenyautl swore at one point he saw a Spaniard stab a Tlaxcalan ally in confusion. Flames briefly flared from another Spaniard, warding off the three warriors closing in on him.
Then Cenyautl was running again, following the lead of one of the nearby nobles. He and his warriors possessed an air of pride and honor Cenyautl found lacking in the fleeing Spaniards. The warriors around the noble, and the noble himself, wore higher quality armor than any Cenyautl or his fellow rank and file warriors could attain. “This way! This way!” they cried, motioning down a street which would intercept the Spanish escape route. Cenyautl followed. I don’t like the looks of those animals some of the Spaniards ride. Rather not face them head on. He’d seen one cave a man’s head in with a solid kick.
They rushed down the street, Cenyautl still not recognizing anyone around him. That didn’t matter, they were united in purpose. The sound of battle over the buildings separating them grew, reaching a fevered pitch. Screams, blood, furious war cries from the Aztecs. The Spanish responded with shouts in their own, alien tongue. They’re outnumbered and outmatched. Why won’t they just die? They’re already running, it’s not as though they have much else to lose.
Suddenly, they found more Spaniards ahead of them, cutting their way through the warriors defending another bridge. Cenyautl, in the middle of the group, joined in the charge. Some around him flung spears and javelins, though none brought down a Spaniard. The charging warriors jumped or dodged around the corpses in the streets, then collided with the defending Spanish as they crossed the bridge.
Chaos. The screams and splashes of blood and other assorted bodily fluids were up close and personal now. Don’t think. Just fight. Cenyautl saw more than one man with a missing limb or spilled organs. Some strange sounds came from further behind Cenyautl. One of the blessed, probably. The gods are the only logical way mere humans can do the impossible things the blessed do. He heard the clatter of a priest’s servant, a magically animated construct traditionally made of obsidian or wood or bone, battling off to his right with a servant of the Spaniards.
Technically they were supposed to fight individually, warrior to warrior. That way was madness this night. The armor the Spaniards wore could deflect most blows even the best warrior could dish out, and they supported one another. So the Aztecs did the same, and there were a lot more Aztec warriors than Spaniards. We aren’t just going to stand there and let them kill us.
Instead, the Aztecs swarmed the Spaniards. Most of the warriors resorted to grabbing at them, their simple wooden clubs utterly ineffective. Cenyautl’s focus narrowed as he came face to face with the invaders, the men before him dead or on the way. They died well. If you’re going to die, might as well be in battle. That was what he’d always been taught anyways. It seemed faintly hollow when men screamed out their life in front of you.
A Tlaxcalan swung his club at Cenyautl’s head. Focus. He ducked and thrust with his spear, still moving forward. The Tlaxcalan mercenary dodged to the side. There was a twang and the whistle of a bolt coming from the Spanish lines, barely missing both the Tlaxcalan and Cenyautl. It struck a warrior off to Cenyautl’s right; he went down with a scream. Lots of screaming going on.
Cenyautl had let himself get distracted. Though momentary, it provided an opening for the Tlaxcalan to take another swing, this time at his knee. Cenyautl regained his senses, moving to turn it into a glancing blow, as opposed to a crippling one. The Tlaxcalan followed through with a reverse swing aimed at Cenyautl’s upper body. Another glancing blow, as Cenyautl stumbled due to the sudden pain in his knee. Up, up. Now. He was saved by a fellow warrior, who wielded a two handed mace. He brought down the mace, shattering the Tlaxcalan’s shield. Cenyautl drove his spear into the Tlaxcalan’s gut. He withdrew his spear and moved on. Don’t think about it. Just stay focused.
The main melee had moved further down the bridge. Cenyautl and the mace warrior ran forward towards the same somewhat isolated Spaniard, standing on the edge of the river. Cenyautl led with his shield, they collided and sent the Spaniard stumbling into the water below. He did not resurface, metal armor is not known for its buoyant qualities. The other warrior kept Cenyautl from joining the Spaniard in the canal. Wordlessly the two continued.
Through the night they fought. Many Spaniards were captured and dragged to the tops of the pyramids. They were stripped, reduced to slaves, unfit to receive a warrior’s death. The priests carved out their hearts and threw them into the sacrificial fires. For the gods and for the emperor.
For all that, some Spaniards still escaped the city with their lives. Cenyautl and the other warrior kept each other alive that night. Cenyautl did not do his wounded knee any favors by running on it and fighting continuously for hours, but it was almost worth it in the end. The invaders were gone, but his knee forced him to watch impotently as the rest escaped. He and the other warrior leaned on each other, returning once the fighting finished.
“Mother, Cenyautl’s home!” shouted Cenyautl’s youngest brother, spotting as he limped towards their house on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan. Cenayutl’s family came from a line of craftsmen, rather than peasants which composed the majority of the population. Thankfully, this area was nowhere near where the fighting had occurred over a week ago. Some fires had broken out in those areas in the chaos, though were put out quickly enough before they got out of control.
Cenyautl was the second child of four. His first brother, older by two years, would follow in father’s footsteps and inherit the workshop they maintained together. I wonder if he’s still as arrogant, with everything going on. His first sister died during childbirth, nearly taking mother with her. Mother recovered and had Cenyautl, for which he was duly grateful. As were, no doubt, his younger brother and sister.
His sister only about a year younger, was the closest of his siblings to his age. They got along better than most other siblings Cenyautl had seen. Their respective duties to father (for Cenyautl) and mother (for his sister) often kept them separated. That didn’t mean that they were always apart. They often played games as children, and she insisted she could do anything Cenyautl or any of the other boys could do. She was almost always right.
He knew she expressed interest in joining the army, which made him uneasy. True, women warriors were not unheard of, though some priests and nobles looked down on them. But blessed warriors were not to be turned away, no matter their gender. They won enough renown that even ordinary women could fight, should they so choose, which was rare. He told her as much, and she made it a point to prove him wrong. I still don’t like it. He’d heard stories from other men in the encampments. Bad ones. On the other hand, if a woman wanted to join the army, she was capable of killing and defending herself, which meant she qualified for soldiering. And warriors of all kinds were respected in Aztec society, at least by the common people.
His youngest brother, currently opening the door for Cenyautl to go inside, only around eleven years old. He hopped up in down in excitement with something to break the monotony of work. Besides the invasion, but that qualified as less fun and more terrifying, though that no longer posed an issue. The remains of a nasty gash ran across his cheek, making his smile lopsided. Scar tissue wasn’t quite as flexible as normal skin. We were doing… something stupid and childish. I can’t even remember anymore. He was even younger, I doubt he remembers at all. Cenyautl shifted his spear and pack to his left hand, then gave him a brief embrace as he entered. He set his things to the side.
Mother had been making tortillas when Cenyautl walked in. Of course she stopped the second he walked in and smothered him in a hug. She was taller than average, of almost the same height as Cenyautl.
“I’m fine, mother,” said Cenyautl over her happy, near indecipherable babbling.
“Now out. Shoo. Not everything in here is ready,” concluded mother, making a waving off motion towards both Cenyautl and his brother. They left the somewhat cramped, smoky interior of the house.
As they left, his sister ran up to them with a grin, matching Cenyautl’s and his younger brother’s.
“Hey! You’re alive!” were the first words out of her mouth.
“Indeed! As are you. And what did you two do to mother? Her hair is going grey.”
“You capture anyone important?” Promotions were earned by capturing enemies for sacrifice. Normally only nobles and others in the upper strata of society operated like that, but social mobility could be attained. He knew of one old friend of his who was one short of becoming a Jaguar warrior. I’ll just fight to stay alive, thank you very much.
“No,” said Cenyautl, shaking his head. “I did put a couple outsiders in the canals though. They sank quick enough.” So they talked and talked and talked. Asking questions about what he did, how life in the army was, if he killed anyone else. He neglected to mention that, right before he returned home, news had reached them about the remaining Spaniards. The men of Otumba failed to finish them off though they still fled back to Tlaxcala in the east. And to the west, the Tarascans, a completely different nation, were beginning to marshal their forces, sensing weakness in the Aztecs.
Eventually father joined them. And he’s also getting old and grey too. A kind of no nonsense man, at least when it came to child raising. He was an only child, his other siblings having been lost to various causes over the years in their childhoods. He still cracked a small smile at the sight of Cenyautl.
“Too worthless for the army?” he asked in a friendly mocking tone. That’s my father!
“Nah, apparently you need working legs to stay in fighting shape. Who knew?” A representative of the local noble Cenyautl joined had told Cenyautl to go home and recover. Cenyautl did not complain.
The other warrior Cenyautl had met, the one with the two handed mace, found him before he left. Over the sounds of celebrations he said “I do not believe this is over yet, no matter what the priests and nobles say. We still may have need of you.”
But Cenyautl wanted to see his family again, and told him as much. The other warrior simply nodded and wished him well. I never did learn his name. He never really did talk outside of necessities like “duck”.
“What happened to your leg?” asked his sister with some concern.
“Took a club blow to my knee. It hasn’t hurt too bad, but it’s been slowing me down and the officers know it. I’ll probably be working here until it heals up.” If it heals, he didn’t add.
“Your brother should be along shortly, and Mother should be cooking now. And I’m sure there are other things which you can occupy your time with, like helping her,” he said, eyeing Cenyautl’s younger siblings. They were about to complain, but a stern look from father sent them running anyways. Don’t make him discipline you.
After a silent moment, father opened his mouth. Cenyautl cut him off with, “No, I’m not expecting to sit in here for free. I haven’t found a woman to marry if you and mother haven’t. Anything else?”
Father smiled. “That about covers it. Good to see you, son.” They chatted as they headed back towards the house.
One month after the Spaniards had been driven out, and everything was falling apart. Disease ridden corpses of the dead filled the streets of the greatest and largest city in the world. No one had the time or energy to move them. The gods are punishing us for not killing the last of the Spaniards. There is no other possible reason for this. Or perhaps the gods have abandoned the empire entirely. A disturbing though, but he couldn’t shake it from his mind.
Nine out of every ten people were sick. Of those sick, almost all died. The pestilence came out of nowhere. There were rumors, vile rumors, that even the emperor himself lay sick and dying, along with at least half his court. Cenyautl knew that everyone else in his family lay sick in their house. Cenyautl thought he felt the sickness himself, but forced those thoughts from his mind. Focus. No black sores on your skin, at least not yet.
The markets were empty, with all of the merchants and porters who usually brought in produce and other exotic goods from all corners of the world also dying horribly. Not nearly as much food to be found as before. The peasants were also dying, which puts a damper on food productivity. Cenyautl did have some food for his family. He limped back home, clutching his spear in one hand and food in the other. People no longer respect the laws of gods or men. They’re probably too desperate to care.
Mournful drums began to rise over the din of lamentations and coughing. Cenyautl stopped, as did the few other people still walking. No. No. That means… Cuitláhuac, the new emperor, was dead. He saw people begin to weep, though not as many as when Moctezuma or Ahuitzotl, their father, died. Many grimaced and continued in their quest for survival. Cenyautl nearly dropped his food. No. The emperor is supposed to guide the people, not succumb to pestilence.
The presence of the other people reminded him to keep moving. Focus. Just… just focus. Get back to your family. The rest of his family, especially mother and his younger brother, probably wouldn’t make it, but he trudged on anyways. His fears were confirmed once he reentered the house. His older brother was the only other one not bedridden, though he looked close. The two of them had never truly gotten along, but now he met Cenyautl’s eye and shook his head. The only other movement was from father’s weak cough and Cenyautl’s younger sister breathing.
In a daze, Cenyautl dropped the food and headed back outside. His thoughts were too scrambled to make any sense. He stopped at some arbitrary distance later and saw a pebble at his feet, so small and simple and meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos, move seemingly of its own volition.