|Chapter Two – The Wild Boar
The sky darkened over the great city of Mutal. The sun had warmed the city’s heartstones only briefly at dawn before Chac and Kawil began their battle in the sky. A single massive Ceibo tree dominated the center of the Plaza. It took thirty men finger-tip to finger-tip to circle her massive trunk. It was no wonder that theWorld Tree remained the city’s inspirational focal point even against the beauty and grandeur of the buildings surrounding it. Yet, even this great tree shuddered as the violence of the Gods built into ever stronger gusts of wind.
The thunder woke Balakan from a recurring nightmare. His heart echoed with remnants of the fast-fading dream. He was surprised that the sky-battle of the Gods had not woken him sooner. He shook off the groggy hand of sleep and pulled a rabbit cloak over his shoulders to hide the scars that he knew littered his back.
The High Priest would be at the Jaguar Temple at dawn. Balakan aimed to meet him there. He had traveled vast distances in body, mind and spirit since his arrival in Mutal. Two calendar tuns had passed since then. The storm this morning reminded him of the immense debt he owed the Gods for his gifts and his heart filled with impatience. The path of the Jaguar Priests was taking far too long.
He would speak with Lantana, convince him to quicken the pace, but the High Priest would be difficult, he did not trust easily. Balakan would have to be particularly convincing today. And he would have to corner Lantana alone. That would be even more difficult. The storm was a good omen though, perhaps it predicted the outcome of his strategy. Kawil was his patron God after all, and if Kawil couldn’t deliver his destiny, then, nothing would. Like morning lightning he knew his arguments would eventually find good ground and grow from there.
He shared his quarters with five other men of similar station and age. At least, the priests thought he was of similar station and age, which was all that mattered, of course. He was the first one up at this early hour, and still, he felt he had slept too long. Snores and the rustle of rope crept from the dark confines of their stone chamber.
Sleep sound my young colleagues, sleep on.
He stopped at the doorway, knelt on one knee and gave short stalk to his prayers. They were more ritual than expectant anyway and he did not have time for prayers that went nowhere. There would always be time for conversations with the Gods that really mattered later.
Just outside the bedchambers, a water bowl stood at the ready, refilled in the early hours by some nameless neophyte hoping to better himself. Balakan had spent his first two tuns in Mutal doing the same thing, trying to gain favor with the Jaguar Priests, and, although he had since progressed from pot-filler to fifth level priest, he was still trying. In spite of his desire to rush, he must look presentable nonetheless. The water felt cool against his skin and he palmed the better part of it up into his hair, smoothing it from its nightly entanglement with the strands of his hammock.
Balakan left the confinement of the priests quarters and aimed for the lower western edge of the Jaguar Temple. Wind and rain pummeled his back, pushing him toward his destination. Another good sign. The storm was with him. He particularly enjoyed the beginning of the rainy season, enjoyed the smell of the cleansed earth, the freshness of germinating seeds in the maize fields and cocoa groves. But most of all, he welcomed the spears of the mighty Kawil, the potent lightning strikes that energized the sky, leaving white streaks against dark clouds that stayed with him even after he closed his eyes. He remembered the time when Kawil’s great spear had touched him, changed him forever. His right shoulder ached even now with the memory of that night, of being touched by an immense power beyond comprehension. A power he yearned to touch again. No, not just touch. Hold. Consume. Control.
He passed through a small, arched doorway that darkened an otherwise seamless wall of limestone-washed stucco. On the other side of the walled courtyard, the great Jaguar Temple rose up as a red, blue and white mountain touching the swirling gray above. He was in luck. At the temple’s center stelae, he spied Lantana’s bent, skeleton frame, seeming so small next to the temple’s immense shadow. And then his luck faded. Lantana was not alone. He was conversing with one of the Priests of the first Level, the level that he hoped to join some time very soon, Lantana willing. Balakan had been noticed. He pushed his frustration aside and bowed low upon his mentor’s approach.
“Great Messenger of Gods.” He addressed the High Priest. “I beg a brief audience.”
“What troubles you, child?”
Balakan flinched with Lantana’s patronizing acknowledgment, but his low bow hid his annoyance.
“Master, I have been beset by troubled dreams.” This part, at least was true. “ I beg your expert guidance to interpret their meaning so the troubles may pass.”
“Priest Quinara here is very good at interpretations.” Lantana motioned to the younger man he had been conversing with. “Go, share your morning maize in his company. Follow his guidance, let him untie the knots of your dreams.”
Priest Quinara took Balakan’s arm as suggested. Balakan tensed, wanting to push the man away. Push him up against a wall and . . . He breathed out through his teeth, steadied his pulse.
“But, Your Greatness . . . ,” Balakan sensed his opportunity slipping away. “The dreams are about you, and the King.” A complete lie, of course, but a necessary one.
Lantana seemed to be reconsidering. The wind struck at his cloak, whipping it around his frail legs.
“Quinara, it seems you have the morning to yourself. Balakan will assist me with preparations today.”
“Yes, Shaman Lantana.” Quinara bowed twice then walked toward the opening in the wall that Balakan had just come through. The other men must be awake. Smoke from a breakfast fire appeared over the top of the wall. Scattered raindrops began a random attack on the ground around them. Quinara quickened his pace.
“Now, then.” Lantana motioned Balakan to follow him inside an archway into a side chamber of the Jaguar temple. “Tell me your dreams.”
Balakan followed the high priest into the dark alcove. It felt as if he had just stepped into the jaws of the great god Izamna himself as damp warm darkness closed in around him, cut off from the wind’s rage. It was his first time inside the temple. Aspirants and lower level priests were not allowed here, even when escorted. The air was much more sultry than he had expected. A mixed smell of ash and blood caught his attention. He breathed in, savoring the experience.
“I remember my first time, my son.” Lantana smiled at him. An honest smile, a generous smile. Balakan almost didn’t mind that he’d been called “son” again.
“It is . . . potent.”
External light pierced deep enough into the dark gullet to reveal steep steps jutting upward just ahead. Lantana pulled a torch down from a stone shelf and lit it with a small flame that burst effortlessly from his fingers. This was a trick that Balakan had learned in his first year at the temple, but, he had not yet let the High Priests know that he had already assumed the gift of fire as one of his own. It had taken many late nights of practice and repeated failures while the other sycophants slept to finally attain the talent. It would have come much quicker, he was certain, if the Priests had been willing to teach it to him at the time, but, he no longer concerned himself with this. His goal was to learn the things that he could not teach himself and the only way was to convince the man ahead of him on the stairs that he was ready. Lantana handed him the torch.
“Now. While we climb, tell me of your dream.” Lantana headed up a narrow staircase that seemed to head straight into the bowels of the temple. The walls were damp with condensation, like a gullet swallowing them whole.
“I would not have bothered you,” Balakan began, “but my dream involved a boar and a jaguar.”
“Was the dream placed in the day or the night?” Lantana took each step as if it were a temple in itself, placing both feet solidly on one level before raising his leg to the next.
“I dreamed this just last night.” Balakan responded.
“That was not my question.” Lantana corrected. “Take your mind back to your dream, did the dream manifest in the daylight or the night?”
“Daylight.” Balakan fabricated, having no idea how this might be relevant. When Lantana nodded, he continued. “The Boar and the Jaguar walked through the jungle and came upon a cave. They decided to explore the cave, but, before they could enter, a toad appeared, telling them they were not allowed unless they first left some sacrifice for the Nine Lords. The toad required that one of them lick him as payment for entry and the Boar agreed. The toad was poisonous and the Boar fell, drunk from the poison. Then, the Jaguar leapt upon the Boar, tearing him into four pieces.”
Lantana stopped on his stair. Balakan found himself three steps below the High Priest, making it impossible to determine what effect his words had on the older man. Lantana’s rutted knees were aligned at the same level as Balakan’s face, and he did not dare look up. In any event, the poor lighting from the torch probably wouldn’t have revealed much of anything anyway.
“What color was the toad?” Lantana asked, continuing the climb.
“I am sorry, Your Greatness, I can’t seem to recall.” Why in Xibalba did the color of the toad matter at all? Balakan rubbed the back of his neck and took the next prolonged step. He knew he could not show his impatience. Gaining the man’s interest was too important. “Grayish, I suppose.”
“Ah! A poisonous frog of shadows, in the daylight. This is grave, grave indeed.” Lantana quickened his pace up the stairway.
Balakan forced his lips into a straight line, not wanting the High Priest to know how pleased he was that his words had hit some fortuitous target with the priest, not yet even knowing what that target was. The man was probably convinced already that Balakan had gained amazing visionary abilities overnight. “Please, Master Lantana, Enlighten your humble servant. I can make no sense of what I saw. I know it involves the King because of the wild boar, or I wouldn’t have bothered you in the first place, but everything else puzzles me.”
The High Priest paused on the steps and whirled to face his prodigy. His face looked grim, wrinkles accentuating the stern mouth, the drawn brow. He fingered his staff with in a steady, repeated roll. “We must fulfill our duties here quickly. You will accompany me to the Palace.”
“The King must be told of what you saw, every detail. His advisors will have questions for you.”
“Yes, of course. At once.” Balakan stiffened, his heart jumped faster. All he had wanted was to learn the spell of discernment, not get an invite to meet the King. He did not enjoy the rest of the morning alone with Lantana. What had he done? What had he said? What did his dream really mean? One thing he did know. He had just bitten a coatl on the tail and he felt certain it was about to bite him back.