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BROUGHT BEFORE THE GODS.

from The Lost City





Once again Aztotl, the Red Heron, was bowing humbly before the
Children of the Sun God, but now there was stern grief impressed
upon his visage, rather than pure devotion, such as one might
feel at the feet of a divinity.

And the face of Victo was unusually pale, her lips tightly
compressed to keep them from trembling too visibly, while her arm
clasped Gladys with almost fierce love in its warm strength.

Aztotl glanced upwards for a moment, then slowly spoke:

"Such are the commands laid upon thy captain of guards, Daughter
of Quetzal', the Fair God. He hath been commanded to fetch Victo
and Glady to the teocalli, there to be--no!" with an outbreak of
fierce rebellion, drawing his superb figure erect, and gripping
javelin until the springy ash quivered, as though suddenly
winning life for itself. "The gods lie! They are speaking
falsely, or--or the paba lies, when trying to thus interpret the
oracle!"

Gladys shrunk away, but her mother stood firm, seeming to gain in
coolness and nerve what this ardent servant was losing.

"It must be thus, my good friend," she spoke, in low, even tones.
"The word hath come to a soldier, and obedience is his first
duty."

"Not when obedience means leading to sacrifice--"

"That may never come, good Aztotl. We have committed no sin, in
deed or in thought. The Mother of Gods will not lay claim to an
innocent victim. Or, even then, the right shall triumph!
Tlacopa is powerful, but hath Victo no influence? Lord Hua may
throw HIS influence to the wrong side, but hath truth no answer?"

"If not truth, then death!" sternly vowed the captain of the
body-guard. "If Tonatiuh fails to punish the enemies of his
daughter, then this right arm shall hurl the false prince down to
Mictlanteuctli, grim lord of the under-world!"

"What is it all about, mother?" murmured Gladys, clinging in sore
affright to the side of her Amazonian relative. "Surely the
people will not--surely we need not go forth to--"

A mother's kiss closed those quivering lips, and then, with far
more assurance than she really could find in her heart, Victoria
bade her child fear nothing; that all would come aright in a
brief while.

Little by little, the maiden's terrors were calmed, and then she
took position by her parent's side with a greater display of
nerve than might have been anticipated.

Through all, Aztotl waited, fiercely silent, held from open
rebellion only by the influence of the woman whose very life was
now menaced. And as the Sun Children stood before him, in
readiness to comply with the commands issued by those in high
authority, the Red Heron broke bonds.

"Say but one word, Daughter of Quetzal', and all this shall never
come to pass! Give me but permission to--"

"What wouldst thou do, good Aztotl?"

"Surround the Sun Children with their loyal body-guard and defend
them, while one brave might strike blow, or hold shield in front
of their sacred charge," slowly yet fiercely declared the
captain, eyes telling how dearly he longed to receive that
permission.

But Victo shook her head in slow negation. She was still cool of
brain enough to realise how fatal such course would be in the
end. If one deadly blow should be dealt, the end could be but
one,--annihilation to both defended and defenders.

Then, too, she recalled the wondrous tidings brought the evening
before by Ixtli and his comrade. Friends were seeking to rescue
them, and if only time might be won--it must be played for, then!

And so, his petition finally denied, with no other course left
open to take, the Red Heron summoned his picked band and, with
the Sun Children in their midst, left the temple, crossed the
plain, and slowly marched into the War God's teocalli.

In awed silence a vast number of Aztecs followed that little
procession, silent as they, yet clearly anticipating events of
far more than ordinary importance. And thus the foredoomed women
were taken before the great stone of sacrifice, whereupon lay a
snow-white lamb, bound past the possibility of struggling.

Close beside the prepared sacrifice stood the head priest,
Tlacopa, robed for the awesome ceremony, sacrificial knife in
hand, temples crowned as customs dictated, eyes blazing as
vividly as they might if backed by living fire.

Not far distant stood Huatzin, head bandaged and face none the
better looking for his floundering fall when his sash gave way
the evening before. And as he caught the passing gaze of the
woman whom he had so basely persecuted, a repulsive smile showed
itself, the grin of a veritable fiend in human guise.

Sternly cold, and outwardly unmoved, the captain of guards
performed his sworn duty, then in grim silence awaited the end.
And in like manner each man of that carefully selected band
rested upon his arms.

A brief pause, during which the utter silence grew actually
oppressive, then the head priest lifted a hand as though
commanding full attention before he should speak.

Then, in tones which were by no means loud, yet which were
modulated so as to fill that expanse most perfectly, Tlacopa
recited the grave accusations brought against the false children
of the mighty Sun God.

To their evil influence he attributed the comparative failure of
crops which had now cursed their fair people throughout the past
years. Unto them, he claimed, belonged the evil credit of many
untimely deaths which had covered so many proud heads with the
ashes of mourning and of despair. To their door might be traced
all of misfortune with which the favourite children of the mighty
gods had been so sorely afflicted.

In proud silence Victo listened to this deliberate arraignment,
not deigning to interpose denial, or offer plea in self-defence,
until the paba was clearly at an end. And even then she gazed
upon Tlacopa with eyes of scorn, and lips which curled with
contempt.

A low murmur from the eager crowd told how anxious they were to
hear more, and, taking her cue from that, Victo made a graceful
motion with her white hand, following it by words that sounded
rarely sweet in their deep mellowness, after the harsh, dry notes
of the paba.

"Who dares to bring such base charges against the Daughters of
Quetzal'? Who are our accusers, head priest?"

Did Tlacopa shrink from that queenly presence? If so, 'twas but
another cunning device intended to pave the way to complete
success; to catch the fickle fancy of his audience by rendering
his retort all the more effective.

"Who dares accuse us of wrong-doing?" again demanded the
Amazonian mother, speaking for her child as well, around whose
waist her left arm was clinging as a needed support.

"The Mother of all the gods!" forcibly replied the priest, now
casting aside all presence of timidity, and gazing into that
proud face with eyes which were filled with fire of hatred and
jealousy. "The all-powerful Centeotl hath made known the awful
truth through the lips of the infallible oracle, my children!
She hath declared that no smiles shall be turned towards the
children of Anahuac so long as false prophets disgrace this great
city! She hath demanded the sacrifice--"

"Who can bear witness to any such demand?" sternly interposed the
captain of the body-guard, unable to listen longer in silence.

Tlacopa flashed an evil look his way, but from the audience
issued another murmur, rising louder until it took upon itself
the shape of words, demanding indubitable proof that the oracle
had indeed spoken thus. And, no longer daring to rely upon his
own authority, Tlacopa turned to the sacrificial stone whereupon
lay the helpless lamb, bowing knee and lifting face as he volubly
repeated the customary invocation; just then it appeared far more
nearly an incantation.

Having thus complied with all the requirements of his office, the
paba first kissed his blade of sacrifice, then seized the lamb
and turned it upon its back, one hand holding it helpless while
with the other he ripped the poor beast wide from throat to tail,
then, making a swift cross-slash, laid bare the cavity and
exposed the quivering heart.

Dropping his knife, Tlacopa grasped this vital organ, fiercely
tearing it away, drawing back where all might see as be lifted
the heart on high for inspection.

One brief look appeared to satisfy his needs, for he gave a
fierce shout as he hurled the bleeding heart towards the accused,
then cried:

"An omen! An omen! The Mother of the Gods claims her victims!"





Next: BENEATH THE SACRIFICIAL STONE.

Previous: PENETRATING GRIM SECRETS.



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