The Eleventh Plague

 

The next morning, Many Mouths arrived well before sunrise, bearing a surprisingly decent breakfast of fruits, nuts and a bland, but rib-sticking corn mush.

"So, what's happening today?" Nate asked, his voice still thick from sleep. Somewhere in the back of his head he hoped the Raven Priestess would be part of it, but quickly quashed that thought. He had enough troubles as it was.

"The Sun Warrior captain wants a demonstration of horseback riding. Please follow me down to the paddock." Many Mouths ducked out the door, before either of them could say anything.

Nate grimaced. "That's just swell."

"After that, do you think we should leave? I feel I have seen quite enough, and I wonder how long their goodwill toward us will last. . . ." Gonzalo said grimly.

"Yeah, we best git. Goodwill never seems to stick to me long," Nate replied with a half-smile as he pulled his boots on.

They arrived at the paddock just as the sun rose behind a large temple, surrounding it with an amber glow. So, that's the home of the Raven Priestess, Nate thought as he squinted into the growing light. There were a great many people lining the fence; high-ranking citizens, warriors, and priests from the many different temples in front, commoners behind.

"Looks like we got us a real rodeo," Nate commented as they entered the paddock.

There was a small group of Sun Warriors waiting near the stable shed. The three horses stood in a tight group, Flavio keeping himself between the strangers and his mares.

"I expect we're going to be proud uncles soon, Gonzalo."

"Yes, I'm sure that Flavio has had his way by now. I hope you don't mind."

"No, Poppy can't live forever, I might as well grow her replacement up now. The way I figure, this crazy new world we're in needs more horses, needs them badly. My grandaddy was a horse breeder and he taught me a thing or two. These are all fine animals, we could do well."

"A fine idea, Nate. The noble horse improves any land with its presence."

Many Mouths walked ahead of them to speak to the warriors. He returned shortly with instructions.

"First, they ask that you perform a demonstration for them. I have already saddled your horses for you." There was a slight furrow on the old gentleman's sun-dried brow. Gonzalo knew that look, and guessed that there would be more to it than that.

Nate gave Gonzalo a questioning look, and cast a glance at the saddles.

Gonzalo stepped close to whisper to him in English "Many Mouths is good with the animals. I taught him how to tend them. He is experienced and will have done it right." Even so, Nate took a minute to double-check the various buckles and straps, finding that their wise-man had indeed done a proper job of it. They both mounted, and set off at a trot. Once clear of the knot of staring warriors, they urged their horses on to faster gaits, circling around the paddock several times, enjoying the hushed gasps of excitement the crowd made at the spectacle of men riding animals. Finally, they had a bit of a race down the length of the enclosure, in which Flavio beat Poppy by a length, despite her longer legs.

"He's a speedy one, all right, and a fast mover with the ladies to boot," Nate told Gonzalo, who laughed and patted his stallion affectionately on the neck.

"A quality I believe you share with him," Gonzalo said, with a wry wink.

"Me? You have me mistaken friend, I am the shy retiring type," Nate protested, keeping his face the very picture of innocence. "Besides,  women are nothing but trouble and I already have plenty of that."

Gonzalo nodded, a knowing grin on his face.

Many Mouths approached them. He looked worried. Gonzalo sighed. There would be more to this than just a demonstration, as he had feared.

"The Sun Warriors have asked that you teach one of them to ride. The young captain there."

Nate and Gonzalo looked over to see the same cocky fellow who had insulted Nate at the temple, his companions slapping him encouragingly on his bare back as he laughed, his voice brimming with over-confidence.

"Shit," Nate muttered.

"Nate, I am sorry, but we had best not use Flavio. He is too high-spirited, and might hurt the fellow."

"As much as I'd like to see that, you're right," Nate growled. "It had best be Poppy. She minds me pretty well, and I can control her from the ground. I'll just circle him around the paddock a few times, and hope that's enough for one day."

A few minutes later, they had managed to get the muscular young warrior into the saddle, where he preened and waved to the crowd, who cheered him on raucously.

"All right then, Many Mouths, tell him that I'll be guiding the horse. He just needs to hang on to the saddle horn and not fall off."

Many Mouths relayed this to the captain, who acted as if he didn't hear a thing.

"Okay, Poppy, walk now, girl," Nate said gently. He wanted to use the lead rope, but was sure the proud warrior would protest. He would try to make it look like the cocksure fool was in control. Nate fell into an easy gait and Poppy followed. They paraded past the crowd, where the young captain could enjoy the adoration of his admirers.

Nate kept a close eye on both horse and rider. He shortly became aware that the man wanted to go faster. He was barking orders in his unintelligible language, and rocking his body back and forth in the saddle.

Nate sighed, and clucked at Poppy to go into a trot. Poppy obeyed, making a wide circle around her dismounted master while the crowd cheered. Nate guided them back toward the shelter, hoping that his student was satisfied with the jostling pace.

The Sun warrior shouted at Many Mouths, and made some unmistakable gestures.

"He wants to go faster," Many Mouths told him with a helpless shrug.

"I figured as much. All right, tell him we can go a gait faster, but that will be all for the first lesson. If he wants to, I'll teach him more, but this is enough for one day."

Many Mouths relayed this, which caused the warrior to scowl haughtily. This was a fellow who was used to getting his way.

Nate caught Poppy's eye, and gave his head a firm shake, along with a certain click of the tongue. Poppy got the message, and headed off at a canter. The warrior nearly fell off, but remembered to hang on to the saddle horn. Poppy took him down the length of the field, then, at Nate's whistle, brought him back. They were about halfway home when the proud rider decided he wanted to go faster still, and began shouting and bouncing in the saddle. Nate ignored him. Poppy snorted with irritation, but didn't speed up. This made the petulant fellow angry, and he began slapping her on the neck.

"Don't do that!" Nate yelled, Many Mouths echoing him. The warrior ignored them, and continued to slap at Poppy.

"Jesus Christ, tell him she's going to throw him off if he keeps that up!" Nate shouted.

Many Mouths dutifully translated, but it was too late. Poppy had taken all she was going to take, and began bucking. Nate and Gonzalo broke into a run, hoping to get ahold of her before she succeeded in de-horsing the large irritant on her back. Alarmed, the waiting warriors fell in behind them, hooting and hollering, which was guaranteed to make things worse. They didn't arrive in time. In ancient equine tradition, the proud appaloosa dumped the Sun Warrior smack-dab in a pile of manure.

Nate stopped running, hands raising in a gesture of disgusted resignation.

"Now it's a rodeo!" he exclaimed with false good cheer.

Gonzalo went to pull the fallen man to his feet, but the captain was in a rage. He shook off the helping hands, rudely shoving the Spaniard away. Nate had Poppy's lead now, trying to settle her down. The embarrassed warrior stalked toward them, face scarlet with anger. Apparently, his pride had suffered grievous injury and the damn fool didn't realize he was lucky that was all that had. Nate saw him coming, and stepped between him and his horse. The Sun Warrior had his hand on the fearsome-looking stone ax at his belt. He paused a few feet in front of Nate and began shouting. Many Mouths, face drawn with worry, translated.

"He says that he will now kill your animal for disgracing him." Many Mouths voice was thick with fear.

"Tell this cock he'll have to kill me first, and I don't intend to go easy." Nate met the man's hostile, dark eyes with his own steely-blue. He was no cowed commoner, this would be warrior to warrior, with no backing down.

The Sun Warrior spat at him, drew his ax, then began to run forward, intending to knock Nate out of the way as he rushed the horse. The young captain wasn't accustomed to resistance, and Nate was ready. At just the right moment, he dodged in low, punched the captain hard in the gut, then tripped him as he doubled over, sending him rolling head over heels onto the ground. The prideful Sun Warrior ended up face-down in the muddy grass, gasping for breath, the wind thoroughly knocked out of him. Nate couldn't help but smile.

"How do you like them apples, Chief?" he asked in a taunting tone that would need no interpretation.

The rest of the Sun Warriors in the paddock, six of them in all, drew their stone axes and bone knives. At least ten more were climbing the fence to join them. Nate drew his saber, just as Gonzalo arrived at his side, fine Spanish longsword ready for battle. Nate took a second to give his comrade a questioning look.

"You don't have to make this your fight, Gonzalo."

"It would dishonor my name and family if I were to let you face them alone, my friend."

Just as the warriors were about to charge, a shrill, piercing whistle sounded nearby, making everyone freeze in place. A woman stepped forward, pulling an indigo cloak off of her head and shoulders. It was the Raven Priestess. Around her, ten of her warriors did the same, all of them seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Nate was sure he hadn't seen them amongst the crowd. Had they been there all along, watching them? Nate shook his head, his attention once again captured by the priestess's dark beauty despite the present danger.

With a subtle gesture of the Raven Priestess' graceful hand, the Sun Warriors lowered their axes and stepped back. She did the same to Nate and Gonzalo, who found themselves unquestioningly sheathing their blades, such was the power of her presence. Her eyes seemed to hold an inner fire, smoky amber irises flashing with specks of gold in the dawn light.

The prideful captain brought himself to his feet. Most of the fight had been knocked out of him, but he took a moment to give Nate and Gonzalo a long, simmering glare before stalking away. The Sun Warriors grumbled under their breaths as they followed him out of the paddock, heading away off across the long morning shadows toward their massive temple. The crowd of onlookers had dispersed completely, evaporating with what was left of the morning mist.

Before Nate or Gonzalo could say a word of thanks, the Raven Priestess whispered something to her own always attentive captain, turned, and glided away, her feet seeming to barely bend the dew-heavy grass. Two of her warriors automatically fell into step behind her. The Raven Warrior captain spoke with Many Mouths at length, then managed a smile for Nate and Gonzalo, a rare treat in the city of great temples.

"The captain of the Raven Warriors commends you on your bravery," Many Mouths told them, having returned to his usual, calmly cheerful demeanor. "You have shown up the Sun Warriors and they will not bother you, at least for a while. He suggests that you leave tomorrow morning. To do so today would make you look cowardly in the eyes of the city folk. These Raven Warriors will remain here to protect your horses from any harm, so you may rest easy. The Raven Priestess noticed that the fare served yesterday didn't please you. She has invited you to go to the market and find whatever food suits you, as much as you want. It is her gift. Later, she will send a cook to your dwelling to help you prepare your meal."

"That is very kind of her," Gonzalo said, giving the Raven captain a polite bow.

"Please tell her we are much obliged," Nate added, smiling tentatively back at the Raven captain. All the Raven Warriors were smiling and laughing now. They surrounded the two foreigners, patting them companionably on their backs, as soldiers do to their fellow fighting men after a victory.

"At last, we have made some friends in this place," Gonzalo said happily, elated by the unexpected welcome.

"Yes, at last. Too bad we have to leave so soon, and just as we were getting to know them!" Nate replied in sarcastic tones.

Gonzalo had learned to recognize his companion's penchant for irony. He rolled his eyes at the dry Texan, looking to God for strength, then went back to shaking hands with their new allies.

****

Accompanied by a Raven Warrior, and followed by a group of youthful helpers provided by Many Mouths, they soon arrived at the marketplace. The jumble of tents and thatch shelters was  a kaleidoscope of colors. Merchants called out their wares, customers haggled for a better deal, while competing groups of musicians waged tuneful war on each other and the ears of the bustling crowd, marching up and down the rows with shrill flutes and thumping drums. Many Mouths led them through the chaos to an area where various foodstuffs could be found. People mostly bartered goods for goods, but sometimes used seashells as a kind of currency. Despite the press of the crowd, it was still fairly cool under the shadows of wide awnings erected to keep the cruel sun at bay.

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