The next morning, the Balam Ch’ab sent me home with Chahel.
When we neared my home, I found the Tzuhunik and the Etamanel Evan exchanging words with a group of the Chuchmox.
“There he is,” one of the women said when she saw me.
Women crowded me, demanding that I go with them to their underground citadel
The Tzuhunik, trailed by the Etamanel Evan, stepped forward. “You women have no legitimate claim to Zaki. Last night it was agreed between the Cabicacmotz, the king, and the Balam Ch’ab that Zaki would have a lesson with us. We must not fight among ourselves like this.”
The last thing I wanted to do was spend time with anyone, except Hac and Cham. Maricua or the servants probably made a meal for me and it waited for me while the adults argued back and forth.
One of the women pushed the Etamanel Evan after he accidentally stepped on her foot. His face paled as hers reddened. Soon they would come to blows and he clearly could not match her ferocity.
“Stop,” a matronly woman cried, when it appeared a melee was at hand. The woman’s eyes were out of focus, as if her thoughts turned inwards. “The Paqal Paray has decreed that the men should be allowed to accompany the boy to the citadel. He can take his lesson with them while he learns from us.”
The Tzuhunik readily agreed, stating that it was an intelligent compromise. The Etamanel Evan seemed both relieved and frightened.
I could not believe how quickly the situation settled. I was not going to go off without food, though. When I told the women that still crowded me that I needed to go home to Maricua and a meal, they told me that Maricua knew I would not be home today and that they had food. Without giving me time to protest, someone put a hand on my back to move me forward. I tried to see who it was and saw it was the Tzuhunik.
“Be quiet and move. Don’t argue with the women,” he said. “We go as they say.”
Chahel roared a growl then. A path opened up for her through the crowd. I expected to see the women scared of Chahel or scream as she approached them, but instead they acted as if nothing was wrong and that there was no danger. A moment later, Chahel was walking at my side.
We arrived at the foot of a large hill that was west of the citadel proper. Everyone knew the hill because the sun set behind it every day. What people did not know was that it was the home of the Chuchmox, the female sentries. Underneath the great mound was an underground cavern system that hid these women. They could fight like men and their power was prodigious.
The women veered towards the southern ridge of the hill. At a juncture between two boulders, they turned into a short canyon. The canyon was devoid of life except for a cactus draped with long weeds. Behind the weeds was a jagged narrow entrance. We filed in and the women in front of me lit torches and small gourds to fill our path with light.
Winding halls of rock led through the system. A woman in the back, who wore a long skirt, instantly obscured the sandy ground where we passed. In that way, we left no trace. Dark pathways were constantly around us. I could not figure out how the women were able to direct us through the maze. Almost immediately, I lost my bearings. No longer could I discern where east and west were.
The Tzuhunik walked behind me. I heard him mutter to the Etamanel Evan that we were going in circles. I tried to remember the cavern walls around me to see if he was right, but the darkness prevented me from noticing features of the rock.
A short while later, no longer were they behind me. Instead, a trio of young women walked behind me. Someone, I realized, diverted them to different sections of the underground.
Moment by moment, my anxiety grew. The darkness in the passageways seemed to peer at me. My old fears, about the giant bats that dwell in caves, made me feel that my heart was being compressed into a small cage. I told myself not to worry as I placed my hand on Chahel’s neck. I calmed down when I realized she had no fear of the cave.
“Where are my other teachers?” I asked. The stale air of the mound thinned my voice and the rock absorbed the excess sound, causing my voice to sound hollow and dead.
“They are being shown their quarters for the evenings to come.”
This alarmed me more than anything else could. I could tolerate the idea that we would spend a night here, but more than that I could not bear. How horrible it must be, I thought, to live in darkness and not see the sun and breathe the clean air of the surface.
A few women behind me giggled, as if they heard my thoughts. Those giggles more than anything caused me to have an attack of nerves so severe that my thinking became disordered and frenetic. I walked without noticing anything around me as I tried to reorder my thoughts.
Soon I became angry at being forced to come here. The women around me looked like leering demons in the flickering flames. They looked like skulls when the lights hit their faces, especially when it blackened their eyes and under-eye areas. They were callous and rude, I thought, to listen in to my personal thoughts.
An old woman walking next to me said, “No thoughts are ever private, young prince. Ideas are communal and are shared by everyone, whether you like it or not.”
I turned towards her to argue when I realized who she was. To my horror I knew the woman.
At a war council of my father, this woman asked what the dark Toltecs had done with body parts of dead warriors. The spies reported that many foreign warriors were unmanned with obsidian knives when they fought against them and she asked what they did with the men’s amputated members. The Cabicacmotz told me that she was an expert in matters of black magic and rituals.
“When will we stop?”
“When you accept that you are here until we give you leave to go,” she answered.
“How did you divert the Tzuhunik and the Etamanel Evan. They were right behind me.”
“We took them away when they suffered moments of distraction at the same time you did. That is the time to perform such maneuvers. Men do not realize how attuned women are to them. We can sense distraction like a jaguar smells fear.”
“Like a dog that takes advantage of his master’s moment of daydreaming and eats a turd when he’s not paying attention,” one of the young women behind me said.
“You are not helping, Kaq Lez. Stay silent. No more colorful examples.”
I glanced behind me and saw who Kaq Lez was. She was a pretty girl with a grin on her face. When she saw me looking back at her, she turned to me and made a face that destroyed her appearance of prettiness. She put the oil lamp to her chest, so the light cast ghastly shadows on her face. Then she narrowed her eyes and stuck out her front teeth in a buck-toothed grin as she nodded.
The old woman turned around and before she finished turning, Kaq Lez lifted the lamp back up and put on a blank look. Now she was stunning.
The old woman humphed and shook her head. “Every sun, the girls seem to act younger and younger.” She looked over at me and said, “I know who you are, Zaki. Why do you not know who I am?”
“You have not told me,” I said.
“A great advantage can be had if one knows who is speaking. If you do not know, ask. There is no sense in your learning the art of governance if you do not take into account the personalities and specialties of the members of council. Governance is not a cold art, it is a breathing and living one which remains fluid and ever-changing because it involves humans,” she said. “What kinds of people, do you suppose, your father consults?”
I thought back to my day at court, when I heard the hideous reports of the spies. All of my teachers seemed to be there. Now I knew who she was.
“You must be the Pacal Paray, then.”
“Ah, good. I am glad to see that my brother’s son is not a dull-witted fool.”
“You are my aunt?” I asked.
“Not by blood, Zaki. I refer to your father as my brother because…well, we came into our power at the same time. We are cohorts.”
One of the girls said, “Silence. We approach.”
The air in the warren slowly grew colder the farther we walked. We entered what must have been a large cave. The firelight failed to illuminate anything other than our faces. I could not gauge the dimensions of the section we were in because immediately the lead woman took a sharp turn down a corridor and we followed her. Soon I began to hear a deep humming sound reverberating through the cave.
We emerged into a long cavern and stood on the shore of a swift underground river. The women stayed silent and rebuffed my attempts to ask them about the emergent point of the river. We walked over a short sturdy bridge and stopped for a brief rest while some of the women removed the bridge and hid it behind some boulders. They refused to talk about that also.
Another woman took over the lead and guided us to the left. She led us to a small corridor and we continued. No longer were the women silent; they chattered excitedly among themselves. I could not see why they seemed happy, but I was glad they were no longer soundless. The silence made me feel that they were leading me to my doom. This felt more normal and natural.
I asked the Pacal Paray the reason for the silence. She told me that the areas we were silent in were areas where sound easily traveled and that they kept the silence because they did not want anyone realizing that they were here. I expressed the opinion that no one could follow them through such an intricate maze.
“A good tracker could tell we were there and read our path as easily as a scribe can read the stones. Don’t underestimate the skills of other men or allow yourself to be lulled into thinking they share your inexperience with the underground.”
Then I was silent.
Finally, we emerged into an enormous cavern filled with torches. The smell of cooking saturated the air and I felt my mouth fill with saliva as the scent overtook me. Several groups of women had fires going.
The Pacal Paray led us to a small group and we sat in a semicircle around a fire. I could feel eyes on me and I turned around. Kaq Lez was behind my right shoulder. She laughed when I caught her watching me. I could see her more clearly than I had in the cave and was surprised to find that she appeared to be close to my age yet younger. In the tunnels, she looked older, like a maiden. Now she was a girl. I wanted to know who she was and to which family she belonged. Most of all, I wanted to know what she was doing with the Chuchmox.
Before I could talk to her, my attention was pulled away. A woman served me two large pieces of fish wrapped in fried corn patties. Everyone around me received food and we ate in silence, watching the fire and hearing the murmur of the other women in the cave.
When we finished, the Pacal Paray directed a lithe, athletic woman to show me my quarters. I asked the woman to tell me her name. She avoided my question by providing details about the layout of the cavern system and particulars about bathing and other hygienic matters I was supposed to obey while visiting them.
We reached a long dark corridor and walked down it a short distance, after she lit a torch from a sconce at its entrance. There seemed to be rooms in the corridor. Cloth covered some openings and others were filled with a dark chill. She told me that the ones with cloths at the openings were rooms that were in use.
Halfway down the hall, she walked into one of the dark rooms. Her torch revealed a large bare cave with a pallet stacked with folded cloths and blankets. The walls were uneven and curved at points. She placed her torch into a sconce near the entryway, telling me that was where I should keep it.
“You must always place your torch where the holder is because all of these rooms have emergency exits,” she said. “Come stand here near the door and tell me where the second opening is, young boy.”
I did as she asked and was unable to see any other entry point into the cave. A feeling of frustration filled me. So far, these women confounded me and it was clear that they were not fools. If they said there was another opening, there must be one. I could not see it, however. I walked further into the room and glanced back at her.
She seemed pleased and nodded.
I walked to the end of the room, where the pallet was. Glancing to my left, I saw an opening leading into black nothingness. My mouth opened wide with delight as the optical illusion vanished. It seemed like magic, but it was simply a practical matter. The left side of the wall curved into the room at an almost imperceptible manner allowing the second entrance to be obscured. If one stood at the main entry, it would be impossible to see. In the low light, I tried to find tool marks or any indicators that this was a planned aspect of the cave.
The woman took the torch from the wall and walked to where I was. She noticed me examining the walls and asked me what I was looking for. I told her and she laughed.
“You will find nothing, for this room is the first we found that had the special way out. Nature formed it this way; it is the template for all other rooms of the Chuchmox. Once we saw how beneficial and tactical this particular cave was, we used it to mold the other rooms into its equal. We take pride in our caves and moldings, but perhaps in them you will see signs of tools having been used for our constructs. From now on, whenever you stay here, this will be your sleeping room. Your cat is still in the larger cave, but she will find her way here for this is also the room she stays in when she visits.”
I was ready to ask her about Chahel’s stays here and she shushed me.
She held the torch to light up the dark corner. I could see a small triangle of space where one could hide. At the corner, a crude rope ladder went up into darkness.
The woman brushed past me, went to the ladder, and told me to climb up behind her as she ascended. She held the torch high above her head and away from the ladder. I had a difficult time climbing up behind her because the rope would sway and shake along with her efforts.
She took me by the elbow to help me climb up into the upper cave. Her torch barely penetrated the stifling darkness in here. Beside her was a large clay vat. Dipping her fingers into it, she showed me that black ash filled it.
“This is one of our most closely held secrets, young prince. Should our cavern citadel ever be breached from the inside, this is how we will survive. I will tell you the things you should remember. After you climb up, draw the ladder up behind you to keep invaders from following you. If they are crafty enough, they can still shimmy up the tunnel, the walls are close enough together to allow that. Second, if they follow you, do this. Cover yourself quickly with the ash so you blend into the darkness, extinguish your light or place it so you are in shadow and wait for them. Third, bash them on the head when they emerge. There are many clubs lying around here,” she said as she used the torch to show the ground around us. There weren’t as many clubs as I expected to see.
“Then you make your way to the exit tunnels on the hill and go to the outside. After that, you should run or hide as fast as you can. If our caves are invaded, the Chuchmox will fight until darkness covers the sky. Then they will make their escape. It would be useless to be cut down in the open daylight. We wait for night. Then you will be very glad for the vat of ashes outside of each escape hole.”
“Are you going to show me the way to the surface?”
She led me around a small maze in the upper level, which had such a low ceiling that I often had to crouch. It was simple for me as a boy, but it would be hard for a grown man; he would have to crawl at particularly low sections. The woman merely bent at the waist and passed through. I was delighted to realize that smaller people would have the advantage here.
“Whatever you do boy, never take the left path in the upper levels, where we are now. If you will notice, we have taken the right hand path at every juncture. Always remember that. The left hand paths are sabotaged. They are deadly and filled with traps.”
A short time later, we could smell and feel fresh open air. We emerged into a broad cave that had a wide opening to the west. Hanging vines covered most of the opening, but I could still see the sun as it set.
I asked her if we could stay to watch the sun set. She looked bored with the idea, but allowed me to stay and watch as the sun abandoned the world to illuminate the land of the shadows. I sat behind the vines and saw the blazing orb dip. Clouds lit up with its golds and reds, heralding the coming of darkness with their brilliance. They mixed with the greens of the vines. I felt my eyes close with sleepiness as the colors mingled behind my eyelids.
A slap on the face brought me out of my slumber. The woman was standing above me with a look of fright. Regret flashed across her face. I realized that she was scared because she had just slapped me and remembered that I was the prince. No doubt, she realized that she could be in trouble with my father. Her slap had only startled me; I felt no pain where she slapped me. I told her not to worry about it and that I would not tell.
She shook her head and told me that she did what she had to do because I refused to wake up. I glanced at the sky and saw that it was full dark now.
“I can see why everyone is so worried about you. They think that one of these times you will not awaken. I am only glad you did not disappear also. I hear that happens to you too,” she said as she shuddered. “Don’t worry about not telling anyone, I plan on telling the Pacal Paray exactly what I was forced to do. I should have realized when I saw you gazing at the dying sun.”
Now I was the one worried. I didn’t want anyone hearing about how a woman slapped me simply because she had a difficult time awakening me. I did not believe a word about my supposed disappearance while gazing. To me, I fell asleep. Nothing more.
“I was not gazing,” I argued. “I was just enjoying the sunset and fell asleep.”
She snorted like a man and put her hands on her hips, “I refuse to discuss this. Let’s go.”
Setting a brisk pace, she led me back to my room and then back to where the other women waited around the fire. The Tzuhunik and the Etamanel Evan were there as well. The Etamanel Evan looked completely ill at ease, while the Tzuhunik was engaging in an animated discussion with the Pacal Paray.