A drop of sweat rolled down Nochtli's cheek as he lifted a heavy stone block into place. He had been working on this large addition to his master's house for six days. His master was a noble, a great Eagle Warrior, who was greatly respected throughout Tenochtitlan and the Aztec empire. His name was Itzipactli, and he was soon to be married, so he started a new wing on his house to accommodate his future wife.
Nochtli had no choice in whether he participated in this project, for he was a slave, sold into slavery by his poverty-stricken parents. Itzipactli bought the boy when he was only thirteen, and Nochtli had been a slave for six years. Itzipactli had been good to Nochtli: he did not act as though the young man was subhuman, he fed him well, and he did not force him to work if he was very ill. Despite all of this, Nochtli was not content. He desired freedom. He felt that his destiny did not lie with Itzipactli; he believed it was not his fate to be a slave, but to be free.
There were only three ways a slave could become free: to buy back his freedom, for his master to release him, or for him to escape and reach the royal palace of the Great Speaker without being caught. Nochtli had no money to his name and Itzipactli would never let him go, but if he could reach the palace, he would be free. That in itself was nearly impossible. Nochtli had never heard of anyone who had actually made it to the palace alive, but he had to try. He would try to escape to the palace.
For the past two years, Nochtli had been waiting and planning. He had been running errands all over Tenochtitlan for Itzipactli, and each night he would go home and scratch a map of where he had been with a stone on the floor of his shack beneath his bedroll. Once the map showed enough of the city, he planned the easiest route to the palace. Now that he was finished planning, all that he needed was an opportunity.
That was what he was waiting for on this early summer morning as he and Itzipactli's four other slaves worked diligently. Beads of sweat stung Nochtli's eyes. He wiped his brow and continued working.
Nochtli looked over at the other slaves. He had considered asking them if they would like to come with him to the palace, but if they told Itzipactli, Nochtli would be severely punished. Nochtli had decided to tell no one; it was safer that way. Besides, he didn't want to risk their lives.
Itzipactli stepped out of his house and approached Nochtli.
"How is the new wing coming?" Itzipactli asked.
"It will be ready by the day after tomorrow," Nochtli replied.
"Good. I am impressed at how quickly the five of you are completing this task," Itzipactli said. "Keep up the good work."
Nochtli could see the satisfaction in Itzipactli's eyes as he turned and went back inside. Nochtli continued working. Soon Nochtli's planning would pay off, soon he would leave this place, soon he would be free.
That evening, Itzipactli had announced that he would be going to see his bride. Before he left, he had assigned them all jobs. Nochtli and another slave, Calliacatl, were to continue working on the new wing.
It was perfect. Tonight was the night that Nochtli was waiting for, but he couldn't allow Calliacatl to find out until he was gone. Somehow, Nochtli needed to keep her occupied until he made his escape. Nochtli hefted a large, cumbersome brick, trying to place it high up on the wall. Nochtli wasn't tall enough. He looked over at Calliacatl, but she was even shorter than he was.
"Calliacatl, I'm going to get something to stand on," Nochtli called.
"Alright," she replied.
Nochtli set the stone brick down and walked away. As soon as he was out of Calliacatl's view, he broke into a sprint. He ran as quickly and quietly as he could. He ran into the shadows behind a nearby house. Nochtli looked back over at Itzipactli's house. He could see Calliacatl still working hard. It wasn't too late to go back. But Nochtli wanted his freedom. He turned and ran behind the next house.
He looked out at the dirt pathway. He saw Itzipactli walking down the dirt road, looking up at the bright stars. Nochtli continued to the next house, the last house on the calpulli. He stood in its shadows and listened. He could hear Itzipactli screaming his name and cursing him. Nochtli would have to cross another dirt path to continue.
Nochtli dashed across the path and into the shadows of a nearby building.
"Hey!" he heard a guard yell.
Nochtli gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. He shut his eyes and listened. He heard footsteps. Soft footsteps, moving closer and closer. He walked quietly to the other side of the building. As he stepped out to sprint to the next building, he felt strong arms wrap around his chest, squeezing the air out of his lungs. It was a guard. A second guard came out from behind the building. Nochtli struggled, but he couldn't break the guard's grip.
"What do we have here?" the guard asked. Nochtli drove his elbow into his captor's stomach. The guard reeled back, losing his grip. Nochtli broke free and rushed away. The other guard lunged for him, but Nochtli managed to stumble out of the way. The guard drew his weapon, a club edged with a gleaming black obsidian blade. He screamed threats at Nochtli, but Nochtli was out of sight, hiding in the shadows of a house across the dirt path.
Nochtli leaned against a building to catch his breath. He shut his eyes. He felt the cool night air on his face. He heard people whispering inside.
He opened his eyes to look at his surroundings. He was behind the school. The school was a small building, it contained only two rooms: one for boys and one for girls. He remembered walking to the school with his mother, the early morning sun creeping over the horizon. She always used tell him to try hard, and things would work out for him. He pushed away the memory. Now Nochtli was a slave seeking freedom, betrayed by his own parents.
Nochtli ran toward the palace, staying in the shadows as much as possible. He ran until he reached the tlachtli court. He stopped and stared at it. He could remember watching people play there with his father. His father would watch whenever he had time. His father was always there for him, providing advice when Nochtli needed it most. After Nochtli's older brother, Maxtla, died in combat, it was his father who told him that when warriors died, they returned as butterflies.
Just then a voice broke into Nochtli's thoughts. "Nochtli!"
Nochtli spun around, startled. It was Itzipactli.
"What do you think you are doing?" Itzipactli asked. "Go home now!" he commanded.
"No. I do not take orders from you anymore," Nochtli said, darting away.
Itzipactli took off after Nochtli. Nochtli ran as fast as he could and started to get away from Itzipactli, but not for long. Nochtli tripped on a rock and hit the ground hard. He tried to stand up, but Itzipactli was already upon him.
Itzipactli knocked him back down. Nochtli could remember a time when he and Itzipactli had been something like friends, a time that seemed so long ago, a time that he had nearly forgotten as Itzipactli spit and stomped on him, his insubordinate slave. Itzipactli bent over and grabbed Nochtli by his shirt, lifting him from the ground. Nochtli kicked at Itzipactli, catching his jaw and knocking him over. Nochtli scrambled to his feet and dashed away.
Nochtli could see the palace now. The sun was just creeping up over the horizon as Nochtli sprinted down the path toward the palace. He was no longer hiding in the shadows; the palace, freedom was so close.
A few guards yelled as Nochtli ran past and gave chase. Nochtli ran faster, pushing himself to his limits. Not far now. His legs burned and his heart raced. Not far now.
He could hear his mother calling to him.
Nochtli heard a bow string being pulled back. He heard an arrow slicing through the cool morning air. The arrow tore through his shoulder. He cried out in pain, but continued running.
The shocked guards stopped cold in their tracks. Nochtli looked at the arrow in his shoulder. It was one of Itzipactli's.
"You won't keep me from my freedom, Itzipactli," Nochtli whispered.
He could hear his father's counsel.
Nochtli heard the bow again, followed by another arrow. This time the arrow pierced his leg. Nochtli dropped to the ground.
He could see his brother's face.
He clawed the ground before him and dragged himself onward, leaving a bloody streak on the ground behind him.
He could see the satisfaction in Itzipactli's eyes.
He heard the sound of the bow being drawn back one last time.
"Itzipactli . . ." He smiled.
He heard another arrow slice through the air, the arrow that would end everything.
Nochtli was free.