had erected in the sands. A shrine had been constructed beneath it, a cairn of stones sheltering the image of the Virgin. They were close, so very close. But many of his men had the marsh fever and although he had escaped, for the time being, from the shadow of Governor Velásquez, he could not sway these men forever. What could he do? He could not venture further inland without food and water. Yet he had to find out what lay beyond those mountains. Mother of God, help me... A voice carried to him on the wind. He opened his eyes. One of the sentries was running towards him along the beach. The naturales had returned.
They are not Mexica, not this time. There are just five of them, they have no escort and their dress is plain. They wear white loincloths without decoration and white cotton capes, an altogether different vision to my Lord Tendile’s feather-work mantle and embroidered cloak. If their clothing is simple, their personal ornamentation is much more elaborate. Their leader has a polished jade turtle in his nose and gold rings in his earlobes; another piece of turquoise drags down his lower lip so that his teeth show in a permanent snarl. His companions also wear large and elaborate earrings and labret s. They wait under the trees outside Feathered Serpent’s tent. Alvarado reaches for one of them, grabbing at his lower lip. My lord shouts at Alvarado and he releases the man, albeit reluctantly. He steps back, glaring at the newcomer like a hungry dog eyeing a piece of raw meat. Aguilar appears pained. “These people speak a language I have never heard,” he hisses at me. “My lord Cortés sent for you.” He leads me over to these newcomers. One of them repeats the greeting he has made to Aguilar. I admit that I cannot understand him either and Aguilar grins in triumph. My lord’s look of frustration and disappointment is like a knife in my heart. I turn back to the strangers. “Do you have the elegant speech?” I ask them. After a moment’s hesitation one of them, the youngest, steps forward. “I speak Nahuatl ,” he admits. I allow myself a shy smile in my lord’s direction and then a chill glance for Aguilar before returning my attention to the strangers. “We welcome you among us. Unfortunately I am the only one here with elegant speech. This dog behind me in the brown robes speaks only Chontal Maya, and the bearded god speaks Castilian, the language spoken in heaven. Can you tell us who you are and how we can be of service to you?” The boy translates what I have said to his companions. They gape at each other in astonishment, then at Feathered Serpent. There appears to be some disagreement among them before the boy is directed on how to proceed. A lengthy and elaborate five-way conversation then takes place; I translate what they have to say into Chontal Maya for Aguilar, Aguilar in turn relays what is said to my lord in Castilian. “We are Totonáca, from a place called Cempoallan,” the boy says. “The town is about a day’s walk from here. We heard that teules,” he uses the Nahuatl word for 'gods', “had landed here on the coast. We have come to bid them welcome and invite them to visit our town where they will be most joyfully received with feasting and presents.” Feathered Serpent smiles when he hears this. He says that he will be most happy to visit with them and asks if they are subjects of the great king, Motecuhzoma. At the mention of Motecuhzoma’s name these Totonacs utter a string of curses in their own language. Finally the boy says: “We are most certainly his subjects, though we wish it otherwise. But is it true what we have heard, that Motecuhzoma sent tribute to your lord?” “Indeed,” I tell him, deciding I might better answer this question myself. True, it was more bribe than tribute, but it will not harm our cause for it to be seen another way. “He sent us a mountain of gifts, quetzal plumes, jade and