Feathered Serpent: A Novel of the Mexican Conquest

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9781400049578: Feathered Serpent: A Novel of the Mexican Conquest

The triumphant, controversial life of the Aztec woman Malinali is one of the great and enduring legends of Mexico. A high-born Mexica heiress, she was sold into slavery as a child, and it was as a slave of the Maya that she met the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. To her, and many of the Mexica, Cortés, with his ?owing beard and pale skin, was Feathered Serpent, the god whose return to earth foretold the end of Montezuma’s fabled empire. The daughter of a prophet, Malinali knew her fate lay with Feathered Serpent and his invaders. To this day she is reviled as a traitor by Mexico’s native people, but is also honored as a heroine and symbolic mother of a mixed-race nation. This is her story—and the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, which for better or worse changed the Americas forever. In Feathered Serpent, Colin Falconer brings the Aztec empire to life in blazing color and gives voice to the incomparable Malinali, who transcended her role as Cortés’s translator and consort to become a fiery agent of history against all odds.
From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Colin Falconer is the author of When We Were Gods and three other historical novels, which have been published in many languages throughout the world. A former journalist and native of London, he now lives with his family in western Australia.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1


One Reed on the Ancient Aztec Calendar,
The Year of Our Lord 1519

The owl man staggered, white froth on his lips, laughing at the shadows hiding in the corners of the Dark House of the Cord. His hair, which reached almost to his waist, was matted with dried blood, and the black mantle around his shoulders gave him the appearance of a hunched and malevolent crow.

Motecuhzoma, the Angry Lord, Revered Speaker of the Mexica, watched, the turquoise plugs in the piercings of his ears and lips reflecting the glow of the pine torches. He whispered his questions to Woman Snake at his elbow.

Woman Snake repeated the questions carefully. "Owl Bringer, can you see through the mists to the future of the Mexica?"

The owl man lay on his back on the floor, laughing hysterically, helpless to the grip of the peyote liquor. "Tenochtitlán is in flames!" he shouted.

Motecuhzoma shifted uneasily on the low, carved throne.

The owl man sat up, pointing with crazed eyes toward the stone wall. "A wooden tower that walks to the temple of Yopico!"

"A tower cannot walk," Motecuhzoma hissed.

"The gods have fled . . . to the forest."

Motecuhzoma wrung his hands in his lap. He whispered another question to Woman Snake. "What do you see of Motecuhzoma?"

"I see the Angry Lord burning and no one to mourn him. The Mexica spit on his body!"

Woman Snake stiffened at this heresy. Even under the intoxication of peyotl, the obscenity echoed around the cavernous room like thunder. "What other portents?" he asked.

"There are great temples on the lake . . . marching toward Tenochtitlán!"

"A temple cannot march."

"The Feathered Serpent returns!" The owl man was breathing fast now, his chest heaving, gasping out words between paroxysms of laughter. "There will be a Tenochtitlán no longer!"

Motecuhzoma rose to his feet, his face contorted into a grimace.

"Our cities are destroyed . . . our bodies are piled in heaps . . ."

Woman Snake saw the emperor put both hands to his face.

"Soon we will see the portents in the sky!"

The owl man was on his hands and knees, crawling toward the throne. He collapsed. There was saliva smeared on his cheek. His eyes were like obsidian. "Turn and see what is about to befall the Mexica!"

Motecuhzoma was silent a long time, his face still hidden in his hands. When he removed them, Woman Snake dared a surreptitious glance at his emperor and saw that he was weeping.

"Wait until the effects of the peyotl have worn off," Motecuhzoma growled, "then skin him."

He strode from the chamber. Owl Bringer lay on the floor, ignorant of his fate, lost to his wild and fevered dreams, laughing at shadows.

Near the Grijalva River

Hernán Cortés steadied himself on the rail of the Santa María de la Concepción, sailing close-hauled, the coast of Yucatán no more than a grease-green border on the port horizon. He sniffed at the taint of tropic vegetation on the salt air. The canvas cracked like grapeshot in the yards above his head, his personal banner whipping from the mast: a red cross on black velvet, below it a Latin inscription in royal blue, the same words that had once graced Constantine's own ensign:


A long way, all this, from the flat and melancholy horizons of Extremadura. And was this not what he had always dreamed of? Here, sailing toward an alien land in uncharted waters, and yet it was as if he were coming home. This wind was his wind, carrying him to his destiny. He knew it as surely as there was a God in heaven.

He looked down at the main deck, at Benítez and Jaramillo hunched in conversation: poor hidalgos like himself, men with education and breeding but no inheritance. They had come to the Indies, as he had, to find their fortunes and escape the boredom and poverty of Castile and Extremadura, to free themselves from the petty tyrannies of the grandees and the harping of the priests. They had all rushed to join him in Cuba, these soldiers of fortune, these bored planters, these failed gold miners, looking for plunder and for profit. And he would give it to them, and more besides. It would be an adventure in the old style, with fame and riches and service to the Lord.

This was his hour, and a good day to be alive.

- -

Gonzalo Norte wanted only to die.

He retched again, spitting green bile into the ocean. Who would believe he had spent eleven of his thirty-three years as a sailor? The last time he had stood on the heaving deck of a ship was eight years ago, in another lifetime. He had forgotten this pitching misery, these stinking holds, this rolling sea.

But it was not the oily pitching of the nao that made him wish for death. It was a sickness of another kind, a sickness of the soul. He dared a glance and saw his new companions watching him with their vicious eyes. They feared and hated him, of course. He was a plague carrier, incubus of a contagion worse than any black-blistered pestilence known on this fever coast. A few of them spat in his direction as they passed him on the deck.

I am alone, he thought. I will be alone for the rest of my life.

He felt an arm go around his shoulders. Aguilar! His one friend on this boat, and the pity of it was, he did not have the strength to throttle the bastard.

"Is it not good to be among Christians again, Gonzalo?" Aguilar used the Chontal Maya tongue, for Norte had forgotten all but a few words of his native Castilian.

"Good? For you, perhaps, Jerónimo."

Aguilar had donned the brown habit of a deacon. Only his shaved head and tobacco-dark skin betrayed the fact that a few days ago he was the slave of a Mayan cacique. He clutched his crumbling Book of Hours, the anthology of prayers that had been his constant companion through his captivity in Yucatán. "You must leave that other life behind," Aguilar said. "Pray for forgiveness and it shall be given you. You succumbed to the Devil, but you may still be saved."

By Satan's hairy ass, Norte thought. If this constant retching had not robbed me of the power in my arms, I would pitch him over the side and let God enjoy his company in heaven with the other saints. Does he not understand that I have no soul left to save? They have wrenched it from me, like a priest tearing out a heart. Why doesn't he just leave me alone?

"It is not a sin that my faith is stronger," Aguilar went on. "Our Lord is boundless in mercy. Confess your sins and you may start your life anew."

"Just leave me alone," Norte said. "For pity's sake, just leave me alone."

And he retched again.

- -

Julián Benítez felt his stomach rebel as he watched the two men. Only Norte truly disgusted him; Aguilar was merely insufferable, like most churchmen. The two men-Norte was a crew member, Aguilar a passenger, a deacon who had just taken minor orders-had been shipwrecked on the way from Darién to Española eight years ago. They and seventeen others escaped the wreck in a longboat, but most died of thirst long before they reached the coast of Yucatán. Perhaps they were the lucky ones. The survivors were captured by the Mayan Indians, and the captain, Valdivia, and several others were murdered. Only Aguilar and Norte had escaped.

After a few days they were captured again, by a Mayan cacique who proved a little more amenable than their first captor. He had even offered Aguilar his own daughter as a wife. As Aguilar told the story, he spent a whole night lying naked beside her in a village hut but had saved himself from the sins of the flesh by taking refuge in his tattered copy of the Book of Hours.

Norte had not proved as resilient, and thus far Benítez was in sympathy with him. He understood Norte's carnality far better than Aguilar's self-imposed chastity. What he did not understand was Norte's later actions: how he could marry a heathen woman and have two children by her, how he could have his ears and lower lip pierced and his face and hands tattooed like a natural. In doing so, he had deserted his faith and his birthright and had joined them in their savagery. The man was no better than a dog.

When Jaramillo and the rest of the landing party found Norte on Cozumel Island, he had even tried to run away. Jaramillo would have murdered him with the rest of the naturales if it had not been for Aguilar's timely intervention. It was the deacon who had persuaded them that Norte was a Spaniard like themselves.

A Spaniard perhaps, Benítez thought. But not like any of us.

Jaramillo followed the direction of Benítez's gaze. "Cortés should have hanged him," he muttered.

"They could roast me over a small fire, I would never allow myself to be so humiliated."

"When I found him, he had stone plugs through his nose. And look at how his earlobes are torn. Aguilar said that such things are part of the devil worship in their temples."

"Have you noticed?" Benítez said. "He even stinks like an Indian."

"I should have slit his throat on the beach and to hell with it."

"Still, Cortés says we need him and Aguilar to help us talk with the naturales."

"Aguilar perhaps, but not him. How do we know what he will say to them?" Jaramillo spat into the sea. "Aguilar says they sacrifice children in their temples. Afterward they eat the flesh."

Benítez shook his head. "I am no lover of ...

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