War God: Nights of the Witch (Chapter 2)

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This is the first of four extracts from my novel
War God: Nights of the Witch that I am offering free-to-read here on Reality Sandwich to mark the publication of War God in the US. If you have a Kindle (or the free Kindle ap on your PC, Mac, I-Phone, I-Pad, Blackberry, Android, etc) you can download the complete novel from any time this week for just $2.99. Click here: For War God in the UK, click here; For War God in Canada, click here:

This first extract is Chapter Two, in which we meet Tozi, a fourteen-year-old witch, one of the two main heroines of my story. She is a prisoner in the women’s fattening pen in the city of Tenochtitlan where she and thousands of others are being held for use as human sacrifices by the people who history knows as the Aztecs but who referred to themselves as the Mexica. “Take care that they do not escape,” state the Mexica priestly regulations concerning the preparation of victims. “Feed them well; let them be fat and desirable for sacrifice on the day of the feast of our god. Let our god rejoice in them since they belong to him.” The chapter unfolds on 18 February 1519 and, though the Mexica do not know it yet, Spanish forces under Hernan Cortés are preparing to set sail from nearby Cuba to destroy them. The Spanish conquest of Mexico, the central subject matter of
War God, is about to begin.

Chapter Two

Tenochtitlan, Thursday 18 February 1519

Tucked in a secret pocket inside her filthy blouse, Tozi carried two atl-inan leaves rolled into delicate little tubes, crimped at each end and filled with the sticky red paste of the chalalatli root. The medicine, obtained by barter from an unscrupulous guard in a dark corner of the women’s fattening pen, was for her friend Coyotl, so Tozi kept her hand protectively over the pocket as she threaded her way through the crowds of prisoners, acutely conscious of how easily the tubes would be broken if anyone bumped into her.

Consisting of two interconnected wings, each a hundred paces long and thirty paces deep, set at right-angles to one another like an arm crooked around the northwest corner of the sacred precinct, the fattening pen had held just four hundred women when Tozi first arrived here seven months previously. Now, thanks to Moctezuma’s recent wars with the Tlascalans, it held more than two thousand, and droves of new captives were still arriving every day. The rear of both wings was built of solid stone, and formed part of the larger enclosure wall of the sacred complex as a whole. The flat roof, also of stone, was supported by rows of giant stone columns. On its inner side, facing the great pyramid, the pen was open, except for a final row of stone columns and the stout bamboo prison bars that filled the gaps from floor to ceiling between them.

Tozi was near the back of the northern wing, making her way towards the western wing where she’d left Coyotl, when she saw five young Tlascalan women clustered in her path. Her heart sank as recognised Xoco amongst them, a cruel, hulking, brute of a girl, a couple of years older than herself. She tried to dodge but the crowd was too dense and Xoco lunged forward, shoving her hard in the chest with both hands. Tozi reeled and would have fallen, but two of the others caught her and pushed her back at Xoco again. Then Xoco’s fist slammed into her belly and drove the air out of her lungs with a great whoop. Tozi stumbled and fell to her knees but, even as she gasped for breath, an instinct she could not suppress sent her hand searching inside her blouse for the medicine tubes.

Xoco spotted the movement. ‘What you got in there?’ she screamed, her face writhing with greed.

Tozi felt the outline of the tubes. They seemed bent. She thought one of them might be broken. ‘Nothing,’ she wheezed as she brought out her hand. ‘I . . . I . . . just . . . wanted to find out what you’d done . . . to my ribs.’

‘Liar!’ Xoco spat. ‘You’re hiding something! Show me!’

The other four girls jeered as Tozi arched her back and loosened the ties on her blouse exposing her flat, boyish chest. ‘I don’t have anything to hide,’ she panted. ‘See for yourself.’

‘I see a witch,’ said Xoco. ‘A crafty little witch! Hiding something from me.’

The rest of the gang hissed like a basket of snakes. ‘Witch!’ they agreed. ‘Witch! She’s a witch!’

Tozi was still kneeling, but now a heavy kick to her ribs knocked her sideways. Someone stamped on her head and she looked into her attackers’ minds and saw they weren’t going to stop. They would just go on beating and kicking and stamping her until she was dead.

She felt calm as she decided she would use the spell of invisibility. But the spell itself could kill her, so she needed a distraction first.

Curling her body into a ball, ignoring the kicks and blows, she began to sing a dreary song, deep down at the bottom of her voice – Hmm-a-hmm-hmm . . . hmm-hmm . . . Hmm-a-hmm-hmm . . . hmm-hmm – raising the pitch with each repeated note, summoning forth a fog of psychic confusion and madness.

It wasn’t a fog anyone could see, but it got into the girls’ eyes and minds, making Xoco screech and turn furiously on her own friends, grabbing a handful of hair here, clawing a face there, interrupting the attack long enough for Tozi to surge to her feet.

She was already whispering the spell of invisibility as she stumbled away, turning her focus inward, slowing the urgent beat of her heart, imagining she was transparent and free as the air. The more strongly and vividly she visualised herself in this form, the more she felt herself fade, the fewer the hostile glances she received and the easier it became to penetrate the crowd of onlookers.

The spell had always hurt her.


But never really badly unless she held it for longer than a count of ten.

One . . .

Gaps opened up and she flowed through them.

Two . . .

No solid obstacle could now block her path.

Three . . .

It was as though she were Ehecatl, god of the air . . .

Four . . .

The spell was very seductive. There was something wonderful about its embrace. But when Tozi reached five she stopped the magic, found a patch of shadow and slowly faded back into visibility again – just a grimy, snot-nosed, lice-infested fourteen-year-old girl, quietly minding her own business.

First she checked her pockets and was relieved to find the two little tubes of chalalatli still mercifully intact.

Then she felt her ribs and face and satisfied herself that nothing was broken despite the beating.

Better still, she realised, the price of the fade was nowhere near as high as it might have been – indeed no more than a punishing headache and flashing lights and wavy lines exploding intermittently before her eyes. She knew from past experience the visual effects would soon subside but the headache would continue, gradually diminishing in intensity, for several days.

Until then it would be dangerous to use the spell again.

But she had no intention of doing so.

She gave a bitter laugh. Witch? she thought. I’m not much of a witch!


Tozi could send out the fog, she could read minds and sometimes she could command wild animals, but a real witch would have been able to make herself invisible for long enough to escape the fattening pen, and she couldn’t do that. Ever since she could remember she’d been able to speak the spell of invisibility, but if she faded for more than a ten count, she paid a terrible price.

The last time she’d risked it was the day her mother was taken by surprise and beaten to death in front of her. It had been one of those times when the priests had whipped Tenochtitlan’s masses into a frenzy of fear and hatred against witches, and her mother was amongst those who’d been named. Tozi had been seven years old then and she’d faded just long enough – no more than a thirty count – to escape the rampaging mob and hide. It had saved her life, but it had also paralysed her arms and legs for a day and a night, filled her body with raging fire and burst something in her brain so that her head felt hacked open, as though by a blunt axe, and blood poured from her ears and nose.

After that, fending for herself on the streets of the great city, she’d not had the courage to try a fade for many years, not even for a five count. But since being seized along with other beggars by the temple catchers and thrown in the pen to be fattened for sacrifice, she’d been working on the problem again, working on it every day. She’d even experimented with a fade from time to time, just for brief instants when it could most help her, slowly feeling her way through the deep tangled magic her mother had begun to teach her in the years before the mob. Sometimes she thought she was close to a solution, but it always vanished like a wisp just as it came within her grasp.

Meanwhile there were some, like Xoco and her gang, who’d become suspicious. They simply couldn’t understand why Tozi was never amongst those selected for sacrifice when the priests came for victims, why again and again it was always others who were taken and this unlikely ragged girl who remained. That was why they suspected witchcraft, and of course they were right, but why did it make them want to hurt her?

If it wasn’t so tragic, their vicious stupidity would almost have been funny, Tozi thought. Had the girls forgotten that just outside the sacred plaza, and presently going about the daily business of their capital city, the Mexica waited to hurt them all, very, very badly – in fact to murder them? Had they forgotten that they would all, sooner or later, be marched up the great pyramid and bent backwards over the execution stone where their hearts would be cut out with a black obsidian knife?

Simultaneous with the thought, Tozi’s own heart quickened and she felt a wave of apprehension. A big part of being invisible wasn’t magic at all, but common sense. Don’t stand out. Don’t offend anyone. Don’t get yourself noticed. But now she saw she had been noticed! Despite the fade, which should have thrown off all pursuit, a girl who’d lurked in the background during Xoco’s attack had followed her. She might be eighteen, this girl, or perhaps twenty, tall and lithe with glowing skin, full, sensual lips, big, dark eyes and straight black hair that fell almost to her waist. She didn’t look like a Tlascalan, and she was older than the rest of Xoco’s gang, but Tozi wasn’t taking any chances. Without a backward glance she ducked into the crowd and ran.

And ran.

And ran.

The other girl couldn’t keep up with her – definitely not a Tlascalan then! – and Tozi very soon gave her the slip, crossing the whole width of the pen from the rear wall to the bamboo bars at the corner of the north and west wings, and burrowing in amongst hundreds of women who had gathered there to stare out through the bars across the smooth paving of the plaza towards the steep northern stairway of the great pyramid.

Even though the routine dawn sacrifices had already been carried out, Tozi sensed the familiar mood of ominous anticipation in the air, her flesh prickled and the pounding pain in her head grew worse.


Just ten days previously the old year, 13-Tochtli, ‘Thirteen-Rabbit’, had come to an end and the new year, 1-Acatl, ‘One-Reed’, had begun, taking its turn again for the first time in fifty-two years, as was the case for each one of the fifty-two named years that danced the circle of the great Calendar Round. There was something special about One-Reed, however – something terrifying for all devotees of the war god Hummingbird, but most notably for the rulers of the Mexica themselves. As everyone knew, One-Reed years were linked inextricably to Quetzalcoatl, god of peace, Hummingbird’s great antagonist. Indeed it had long ago been prophesied that when Quetzalcoatl returned he would do so in a One-Reed year.

In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Mexica, the name Quetzalcoatl meant ‘Feathered Serpent’. Ancient traditions maintained that he had been the first god-king of the lands now ruled by the Mexica. Born in a One-Reed year, he had been a god of goodness who was said to have stopped up his ears with his fingers when addressed on the subject of war. The traditions described him as tall, fair-skinned, ruddy complexioned and richly bearded. The traditions also told how Hummingbird and Tezcatlipoca, that other god of violence whose name meant ‘Smoking Mirror’, had plotted against Quetzalcoatl and succeeded in driving him out of Mexico – and how he had been forced to flee across the eastern ocean on a raft of serpents. This, too, had happened in a One-Reed year. Before departing from the Yucatán coast, Quetzalcoatl had prophesied that he would return many years in the future, once again in a One-Reed year. When that time came, he said, he would cross back over the eastern ocean, ‘in a boat that moved by itself without paddles’, and would appear in great power to overthrow the cults of Hummingbird and Tezcatlipoca. All those who followed them would be cast down into Mictlan, the shadowy realm of the dead, a wicked king would be overthrown and a new era would begin when the gods would once again accept sacrifices of fruits and flowers and cease their clamour for human blood.

For the ten days since the inception of the current One-Reed year, there had been rumours that a new cycle of sacrifices was planned, a spectacular festival of blood to appease and strengthen Hummingbird against the possible return of Quetzalcoatl. Guessing the commotion at the pyramid must be connected with this, Tozi decided Coyotl would have to wait a few more moments while she found out. Holding her hand over the pocket where the medicine tubes lay, she wormed forward through the crowd until her face was jammed against the bars.

As usual the pyramid impressed itself upon her as forcefully as a blow to the face. Towering in the midst of the plaza, glowing poisonously in the sun, its four levels were painted respectively green, red, turquoise and yellow. On the summit platform, tall, narrow and dark and seeming to eat up the light that shone down on it, stood Hummingbird’s temple.

Tozi gasped when she saw that Moctezuma himself, dressed in all his finery, was amongst the black-robed priests clustered round the altar in front of the temple. Less surprising was the presence of fifty, she counted them – no, fifty-two! – lean and beautiful young Tlascalan men, daubed with white paint, dressed in paper garments, who were trudging with heavy feet up the steep steps of the northern stairway.

Tozi had seen many deaths in the past seven months, inflicted in many ingenious and horrible ways. Despite all her efforts to stay alive she was constantly afraid she might be snatched aside by the priests and murdered at any moment. Still she could not rid herself of the pain she felt whenever she saw others climbing the pyramid to die, and she gasped as the first young man reached the top of the steps.

At once a drum began to beat.

Four burly priests flung the victim on his back over the killing stone and took position at each of his arms and legs, holding him down tight, stretching his chest. Then, with the jerky, ungainly movements of a puppet, Moctezuma loomed over him, clutching a long obsidian knife that glinted in the sun. Tozi had seen it all before but still she watched, rooted to the spot, as the Great Speaker raised the knife and plunged it to the hilt in the victim’s sternum. He cut upward, urgent but precise. When he found the heart he sliced it vigorously from its moorings, snatched it out amidst fountains of blood, and placed it, still beating, on the brazier in front of Hummingbird’s temple. There was a great hissing and sizzling and a burst of steam and smoke rose up at the top of the pyramid. Then the victim’s body was rolled off the stone and Tozi heard hacking and rending sounds as skilled butcher priests fell on it and amputated the arms and legs for later consumption. She saw the head being carried into the temple to be spitted on the skull rack. Finally the torso was sent rolling and bouncing down the pyramid steps, leaving bloody smears all the way to the plaza below where it would soon be joined in a rising heap by the unwanted remains of all the other docile young men presently climbing the northern stairway.

Tozi knew from seven months of witnessing such scenes that the pile of torsos would be gathered up in wheelbarrows after nightfall and trundled off to feed the wild beasts in Moctezuma’s zoo.

The Mexica were monsters, she thought. So cruel. She hated them! She would never be their docile victim!

But evading them was becoming more difficult.

Three searing beats of pain shook her head, and a burst of flashing lights exploded before her eyes. She clenched her teeth to stop herself crying out.

It wasn’t just that she’d started to be noticed by some of the other prisoners – though that was dangerous enough. The real problem was caring for Coyotl, a huge responsibility that she knew she could not hope to sustain in these conditions. The only solution was to find a way to fade for longer than a ten count without having a massive physical collapse. Then she could get them out of here.

Tozi edged back and took her eyes off the pyramid, distracted for a moment by the way the morning sun poured through the bamboo prison bars creating stripes of deep shadow and stripes of intense, brilliant light, filled with swirling motes of dust. Suddenly she thought she saw the tall, beautiful woman again, gliding through the haze like a ghost. She blinked and the woman was gone.

Who are you? thought Tozi. Are you a witch like me? She felt the cool, packed earth of the floor under her feet and sensed the warmth and odours of the other prisoners all around her. Then, like an evil spirit, a breeze smelling of blood blew up out of the southeast and the screams of Moctezuma’s next victim filled the air.

Normally the high priest wielded the obsidian knife, and Moctezuma would not become involved except on the most important State occasions. It followed that only something very significant could explain his presence here this morning.

With a shudder Tozi turned her back on the pyramid and moved swiftly through the crowd, disturbing no one, to the place where she had left Coyotl.


The above was the first of four extracts from my novel
War God: Nights of the Witch that I am offering free-to-read here on Reality Sandwich to mark the publication of War God in the US. If you have a Kindle (or the free Kindle ap on your PC, Mac, I-Phone, I-Pad, Blackberry, Android, etc) you can download the complete novel from any time this week for just $2.99. Click here: For War God in the UK, click here; For War God in Canada, click here:

Image by william.neuheisel, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing. 

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