The sunset cast a dim orange glow that pierced through the trees of the rainforest. Birds chirped as a spider monkey swung from one tree to another, narrowly avoiding the green jays’ nest. Thirty feet below, the trampling march of men could be heard. Leading the way was Hernán Cortés. Having been in this strange new land for the best part of two years, he was well versed in the dangers of travelling through these wooded areas in small numbers. Warriors from any number of tribes could ambush and take him prisoner, to be killed later in a sacrificial ceremony. But there was no chance of that now. Cortés was far from alone as he marched on through the trees. He had amassed a small army made up of his loyal Spanish soldiers and the Tlaxcalan tribe, with whom he’d struck a deal to gain their allegiance in the eradication of the Aztec empire.
A lot had happened in his two years in Mesoamerica. He had recruited soldiers from Trinidad and sailed from Cuba five-hundred strong to arrive in these new lands. From there he acquainted himself with the Aztec culture, before destroying it piece by piece, settlement by settlement. His journey from the Yucatan Peninsula, through Tabasco and across the country had been successful; he’d claimed the lands and converted some of the natives to Christianity. But for all his efforts to expand the Spanish empire, he had been labelled a mutineer and a disgrace by the crown for travelling to the new lands against orders. For everything he’d done for his country, this was how they repaid him; by fixating on one insignificant detail and ignoring his vastly outweighing accomplishments. His greatest conquest, the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán, still lay ahead of him. It would be a difficult task, but one that would truly be worthy of recognition. If he was able to do this, King Charles V would surely be unable to ignore his achievements any longer.
The city loomed into view as the dying light faded into blackness. He could see the tips of the familiar pyramids, the gentle flicker of flame from the newly lit torches as the emptying streets were being prepped for nightfall. He ceased his progress and turned to address his men. The marching feet stopped abruptly, the forest falling silent. Seeing the mass of soldiers under his command, Cortés took a moment to reflect on the progress he’d made. Looking then to the city of Tenochtitlán, he contemplated his next move. It was not his first visit to the capital, and the memory of fleeing the city after the death of the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II, was all too fresh. After arriving in Tenochtitlán the first time, he had learned that the Aztec people considered him an emissary of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. He was taken in by Moctezuma II as a guest. Cortés preyed on their beliefs, using this knowledge to instil a sense of importance about him and his men. He would not be seen as a threat while this belief was held. Perhaps Moctezuma’s greatest failure had been in offering gifts of gold to Cortés and his men. In an attempt to appease his strange foreign guests, he had only alerted them to the presence of riches and aggravated their lust for wealth.
Cortés had a plan to learn as much about this culture as possible; to uncover their weaknesses and formulate a plan to take over the city. It was going well, until he had to leave his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, in charge while he saw off the men sent by the Governor of Cuba. Cortés had disobeyed the Governor’s orders by setting sail to the new lands, and the Governor sought revenge. In his temporary role as leader while Cortés was away, Alvarado made a crucial mistake, orchestrating a massacre of the citizens who were celebrating the festival of Toxcatl. The revolt that occurred in the aftermath forced his men to flee the city.
He had wanted to fight, to conquer the city and ensure his efforts had not been in vain, but Cortés was a smart man. He had lost a lot of men and knew the odds were stacked heavily against him, so he would need to temporarily retreat to bide his time. The Tlaxcalans had been easily bought on the promise of immunity from sacrifice and control of Tenochtitlán. Cortés didn’t care for the rule of the city, for he knew there was more out there for him to see; more for him to conquer. With an allegiance like this and the reinforcements that arrived from Cuba to aid him, his army was strong enough to quash the remnants of Moctezuma II’s legacy. The Aztec king that had once welcomed him as a guest was dead, but there were always others ready to take his place.
Now Cortés had returned, and the time for vengeance, the time for a recognition of his successes, was at hand. Looking back to his army, he gave orders to Pedro de Alvarado to distribute among his men. Then he issued commands to his concubine, Doña Marina; a local Nahua woman who had become a personal advisor to him in his journey through this new land. She spoke the local Nahuatl language and had learned Spanish in her time with Cortés. It was much easier relaying messages to the locals now that she had become proficient in his mother tongue. He no longer relied on the intermediate translation provided by the priest Geronimo de Aguilar. Aguilar had made himself useful to Cortés when it was learned he spoke the Chontal Maya language; a language also understood by Doña Marina. Now that commands could be taken directly from Spanish to Nahuatl, they were dispersed to both armies much quicker. With the orders delivered and the tactics set, he was ready to strike.
The siege of Tenochtitlán had been long and brutal, but in the end successful. The city was his, and Cortés set about letting the world know of his conquest, including the Spanish King. It was late evening and a fire roared in the room he’d adopted as his private study. He was standing at a table, looking over the map he’d roughly drawn of the new world they were uncovering piece by piece. He felt confident of his conquest of Mexico, but there were lands to the south that were still undiscovered. Suddenly, the door burst open and two Spanish soldiers entered, dragging a prisoner with them. The weary man being dragged along the floor looked as though he’d been plucked from the battlefield, his flesh cut and bruised all over, and there was a wild fury in his bloodshot eyes. He wore the distinctive armour of the higher-ranking Aztec warrior, made from animal hide, leather, and cotton. While the armour had once covered his entire torso, the material had since been cut away above the midriff, revealing the man’s injuries.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ Cortés was outraged by the sudden intrusion.
‘We found this man fleeing the city,’ the more senior of the Spanish soldiers replied. ‘He was part of a larger group that escaped the southern end of the capital.’
The prisoner was thrown onto his knees in front of the soldiers, his hands tightly bound together in front of him. The man looked exhausted; likely using up most of his strength attempting to fight off his captors.
‘Why bring him here and not simply kill him?’ Cortés asked, visibly annoyed by the soldiers’ decision to bother him with this matter. ‘Their empire is dead. If they wish to flee, let them. They know what fate awaits if they return. I am not interested in keeping prisoners.’ He went back to the map on the table.
‘Sir, we believe this group was smuggling gold out of the city.’
This piqued his interest. ‘Gold?’
‘Yes, and we have word that there are rare gems too.’
Cortés was now staring the prisoner in the eye, suddenly excited by the prospect of greater wealth. A gift of riches to the king would be a fitting accompaniment to the news that they had reclaimed the city and conquered this part of New Spain. The prisoner looked back at him, his eyes clearly displaying his hatred of the man who’d destroyed everything he’d lived for.
‘Tell me about these gems.’
‘We don’t know much, but we have another source who told us there was one more beautiful than any other she’d seen. She said it was a sacred stone; one that was precious to the late king.’
Moctezuma’s personal treasure. Cortés thought he’d found the last of it when he’d had the whole city ransacked. His men were getting sloppy; the victory had given them a reason to relax. Didn’t they know there was still work to be done? If this jewel really was as they said, it would make the perfect tribute to the king.
‘There’s one other thing,’ the soldier added.
‘We found this on his person.’ The man approached the table and set down a strange-looking object that Cortés had never seen before. It was made from clay and obsidian, in the shape of a star. The light from the fire wasn’t bright enough for him to make out the intricate carvings in the clay in the centre of the object, but the light bounced off the fragments of obsidian that spread menacingly out to make the star shape.
‘What is this?’ he asked.
‘We’re not sure. But it took a lot of effort to take it from him. He was loathed to part with it.’ The Nahua man’s eyes widened at seeing the object being handed to Cortés. The Spaniard noted this and smirked. He enjoyed the feeling of having the upper hand over others. Despite not knowing the full details at this point, he knew the man wanted this object, and it was now his. Such was the thrill of conquering new lands. He picked it up carefully, watching the prisoner’s eyes follow it, and touched the sharp edge of the obsidian, cutting his finger and drawing blood. What a fascinating weapon. He wondered how it must have been used.
‘Marina,’ he said, looking to the soldiers. ‘Where is she?’
‘I’ll request her presence,’ the second soldier replied.
Moments later, Doña Marina was by his side. She flinched when she saw the state the young Aztec warrior was in. While clearly a high-ranking warrior in the Aztec ranks, he couldn’t have been older than twenty-three. Cortés gave her permission to speak with the prisoner, to ascertain as much as possible about the jewel and gold that had been transported out of the city.
‘The man calls himself ocēlōtl,’ she said at last. ‘It means Jaguar Warrior. He is an elite soldier, despite his years.’
‘Then I suppose I should congratulate him,’ Cortés sneered. ‘Where did they take it?’ His impatience to learn the whereabouts of the treasure cut through.
‘He didn’t tell me,’ she said.
‘A pity. Perhaps he needs some persuading.’ Cortés walked over to the table and picked up a short dagger. The two Spanish soldiers instantly grabbed the Nahua man’s arms, pinning him down. He began to struggle and called out in frustration as Cortés felt the weight of the blade in his hand. The light from the fire glinted off the edge of the sharpened steel. The native warrior could sense the end approaching. He was trained not to fear death, but there was a primal survival instinct taking hold which he could not control.
With one last effort, the man forced upwards with all his strength, tilting his head to the side to catch one of the soldiers in the face with the back of his skull. He heard the crunch of bone as the motion broke the soldier’s nose, and the Spaniard reeled backwards, holding his face in agony. Before the second soldier could react, the Nahua man swung an uppercut with his bound hands, catching him with force on the chin. He then sprang to his feet, picking up the star-shaped object in both hands and tossing it into the fire. He shouted something in Nahuatl in the direction of Cortés and spat at him. By this point the soldiers had regained their composure and restrained him once more, using more force than before to hold him down.
Cortés was surprised by the sudden brash act, although his expression did not show it. He wiped the spit that had caught his face, and in the next moment slammed the dagger down onto the table, point facing down. The tip of the blade penetrated the wood, leaving it standing upright. He then walked over to Doña Marina and whispered in her ear to ask what the man had said to him. She replied, telling him that he had cursed him in the name of the gods, and declared that he would never find the Heart of the Jaguar now. This last part caused a shadow of a smile to etch itself onto his face. The jewel had a name. They wouldn’t have given a name to any old gem; the local informants to the soldiers weren’t lying. Wherever the rest of the Aztec warriors went with the late king’s treasure, they were almost certainly carrying with them a special gem of particular worth. He took the dagger off the table and hunted around in the fire for the star-shaped object that had been thrown there, using the tip of the blade as a fire poker. He found what he was looking for and flicked it out onto the ground, letting it cool on the cold stone floor. It appeared to be undamaged, which was unsurprising as the clay and obsidian were unlikely to succumb to damage from extreme heat over such a short period. Then, he approached his prisoner with the dagger. The end of the blade still glowed orange from the fire. The Nahua man could feel its heat and almost hear the crackle as Cortés hovered it over the top of his ear.
‘Now,’ he said, addressing Doña Marina, but staring deep into the eyes of the warrior. ‘Ask him again where the Heart of the Jaguar is being taken.’