Nezahualcoyotl in his war costume.
An Eagle Warrior, one of the three knightly orders in Mesoamerica.
The sixteen-year-old prince hid in the tree as the pursuers swarmed up the canyon on Mount Tlaloc. Nezahualcoyotl watched as the men wearing the insignia of Otompan, Chalco, and even his own city of Texcoco came plainly into view. His father, the king, Ixtlilxochitl (Black-Faced Flower), waited for them with his two remaining captains. The king’s last words filled his ears, ‘Hide,’ in this ‘tree, remembering that if you die, with you ends the ancient line of the Chichimecan kings. Go later to your relatives at Tlax-callan and Huexotzinco and ask for help from them. Remember that you are a Chichimecatl recovering your kingdom.’
Nezahualcoyotl peered from between the leafy branches as the vassals of Tezozomoc spread out to surround the three men of Texcoco. Their words dripped with the forms of deference, carefully adding the respectful ‘tzin’ to the end of his name. They were asking him to honour the Tepanec gods at their festival. Nezahualcoyotl shuddered at the thought of the honour they were asking of him, that which would throw him on the stone of sacrifice. It would be just the sort of final exquisite victory the ancient Tezozomoc would savour and the gods too, for the blood of kings was especially sweet to them.
Tezozomoc recently had reduced the Acolhua kingdom of Texcoco on the eastern shores of the lakes in the centre of the Valley of Mexico to ruin by the death of a thousand intrigues. He already ruled the other great Náhuatl-speaking peoples of the Valley, the Tepaneca, who controlled the western shores of the Valley. Great wars had been waged around the lakes of the Valley of Mexico for the mastery of Anáhuac, as this ancient lake-centred world was called. Ixtlilxochitl had initially beaten Tezozomoc in that arena, bringing his capital under siege and finally extracting peace from the Tepanec king and a pledge to acknowledge him as the high king, or Chichimecatl, the legitimate successor of the Toltec patrimony. But it had been a poisonous peace, in which Tezozomoc had suborned the Texcocan vassals and allies, many of them co-opted by his skilful web of marriages to his own children and grandchildren. The trap had been so carefully sprung in 1418 that the power of Texcoco fell away from Ixtlilxochitl in an instant.
The wily old Tepanec had come across the lake to a great hunt and begged the younger Texcocan king to spare his old body the rigour of a second trip to pay him homage. Ixtlilxochitl had been prepared to do so and take Nezahualcoyotl with him when he was warned of treachery by his brother, Acatlotzin. Returning to Texcoco from Tezozomoc’s capital of Azcapotzalco, he warned of a plot to kill him. In the cloaking greyness of dawn, he had heard the Tepanec lords discussing the plan to bring down the Texcocan king. At the suggestion of the royal tutor that a double be sent instead of the king, he asked to take the king’s place; his resemblance was close enough to fool the, Tepaneca. He only asked that the king see that his wife and children and vassals never wanted. In tears, Ixtlilxochitl agreed. He had no choice. The armies of Texcoco were scattered by the peace, and his vassals and allies had turned in his hand. Acatlotzin then went bravely to the death meant for the king, but he had bought time. His retainers had escaped to bring the news that the trap had been sprung and that Tezozomoc had been deceived, but the deception would last only a short time. The royal family barely had time to flee to their summer home in the mountains ahead of Tezozomoc’s warriors.
From there the king sent another son, Chi-huaquequenotzin (He Who Laughs at Women) to beg help from Otompan, a city Ixtlilxochitl had once punished for its allegiance to Tezozomoc. This prince was Nezahualcoyotl’s half-brother, son of the Tepanec Flower, Tezozomoc’s own daughter. Tezozomoc had sought to use her to bind the Texcocan king to him but found only insult in the connection. Ixtlilxochitl had kept her only as his concubine; Nezahualcoyotl’s mother was his wife and queen, and he would not set her aside for the Tepanec woman. This woman who had won Ixtlilxochitl’s heart was sister to the ruler of the Mexica, Chimalpopoca, in Tenochtitlan, the island city across the lake, vassal to Tezozomoc. This flower of the Tepaneca bore four sons for Ixtlilxochitl, three of whom inherited none of their grandfather’s treacherous nature. Chihuaquequenotzin was one of these. He, too, asked that his family be cared for upon his death. The prince arrived in Otompan at the time of religious festival when the population of the town had gathered in the plaza. The military governor turned away the prince’s request, telling him to ask the people of Otompan from the temple steps. The crowd howled its reply, and the governor proclaimed his loyalty to Tezozomoc. He Who Laughs at Women died in a hail of stones, and the warriors of the town vied to take a piece of his flesh home for a sacred festival meal. Ixtlilxochitl knew all was lost as the messenger brought this tale and its final dregs—that his son’s fingernails were worn by the governor of Otompan as a necklace. Flight over the mountains to his wife’s other relatives in Tlaxcallan was now the only hope. Taking only Nezahualcoyotl and two captains, he slipped away.
Now he was surrounded in the canyon. He threw back Tezozomoc’s invitation. Then the Tepaneca attacked. His captains fell around him, and then he was alone laying about him until he, too, disappeared in the slashing obsidian. They stripped him of the royal insignia, the blue crown and mantle of the Toltec kings, and left. For the rest of the day, Nezahualcoyotl huddled in the tree, too afraid to show himself. The next morning more men came, but these reverently retrieved the body, dressed it in royal blue insignia, and paused to praise the dead king and his missing heir. At last the prince emerged from his tree to show himself to these last loyal retainers. They burned the body upon a funeral pyre in the style of the Toltec kings.
With this small band, Nezahualcoyotl headed over the mountains to Tlaxcallan. Huddled in the canyons he found many of the still loyal lords and priests of Texcoco who had fled Tezozomoc’s onslaught. What he had seen from the tree had transformed him. He was no longer the heir, but the king charged by his father with recovering his kingdom. He told the frightened group to go home and submit outwardly but to wait for him when he should return from exile to reclaim his throne. Then he turned his back on Anáhuac and walked into exile and adventure that would become legend.
With him to Tlaxcallan went his nephews, the sons of his brother, Chihuaquequenotzin, who were now his charge. Also with him were the other sons of the Tepanec Flower Cuauhtlehuanitzin and Xiconocatzin. Like their martyred brother, they were loyal to the core. Redoubtable in battle and counsel, they would be two right arms to their young king and brother. The fourth brother, Tilmatzin, was the true seed of Tezozomoc’s line. He lingered behind and gladly allowed his grandfather to place him on the throne of Acolman on the lake shore to the north of the capital.
In Tlaxcallan, the mountain-rimmed republic to the northeast of the Valley of Mexico, Nezahualcoyotl and his small band of followers found refuge among his mother’s relatives. There he began the four years of exile and preparation for the moment when Tezozomoc’s grip on Texcoco would slip. They would be years of wandering and danger. The young king was not inclined to hide in the safety of Tlaxcallan. In this time, the meaning of his name, Hungry Coyote, would be fulfilled. Hungry he would be and hunted but never still and always playing the game for the highest prize. It was not long after Tezozomoc fastened his grip on Texcoco that the rumours of the boy king began seeping through the land. He was seen in one place, then another, always disappearing like the mist when Tezozomoc’s men closed in upon the rumour. Tezozomoc’s rule sat uneasily on Texcoco despite the web of alliances by blood and interest that anchored it. He veered between terror and paternal favours to win over the Texcocans. His soldiers visited every village to ask the children the name of the king. If they answered Ixtlilxochitl or Nezahualcoyotl, as they had heard their parents speak, the soldiers killed them on the spot. The word spread ahead of them, forcing the people to teach their children to mouth the name Tezozomoc with the word king. With the terror, there also came honey to sweeten the taste of Tezozomoc’s rule. The king’s herald gathered the people from Texcoco and the surrounding towns to hear the Tepanec’s words to his new subjects. From a pyramid he spoke of Tezozomoc’s love for them as a father and of his forbearance of their tribute for a full year so that they might repair the ruin of war. They would be ruled by their own local lords and suffer no Tepanec governors. The vast crowds roared in approval. Close by on the hill of Cuauhyacac, a boy listened to the clear voice of the herald even at a distance, and heard one more of Tezozomoc’s bribes to the people of Texcoco. Great would be the rewards to him who brought before Tezozomoc the prince Nezahualcoyotl, dead or alive.
Tezozomoc had used marriage alliances to his great advantage, but most weapons have more than one edge. The Mexica ruler in Tenochtitlan was his grandson but was also Nezahualcoyotl’s cousin. His aunts in the Mexica royal family pleaded his case with their Tepanec liege and relative and brought rich gifts. They argued well that in all these years that had passed, Nezahualcoyotl had raised no conspiracies or armies against him. He had simply whiled away his time in ball games and other concerns of youth. Let him come to live with them in Tenochtitlan. Were they not loyal vassals and kin of Tezozomoc? What safer place to keep the young man where he could be watched? In time the old man’s guard dropped, and Nezahualcoyotl came to live in Tenochtitlan in 1422. For two years he lived quietly and in friendship with his young cousin Chimalpopoca and especially his uncle, Itzcoatl (Obsidian Serpent), whom he greatly admired. In these impressionable years, he found his first if tenuous security under the protection of his Mexica relatives, and must have become very Mexica in outlook. He accompanied his relatives to war and took prisoners, the vital first step to create the military reputation vital for a ruler. He even offered them up to Tezozomoc, saying with a disarming coolness remarkable in one so young, ‘My lord, O Tezozomoc, a fatherless orphan enters your presence to make his offering.’
Several years later, his aunts again pleaded for their nephew. Let him return to live in the palace of his father in Texcoco. He is harmless as he has proven himself over the last two years. Does not Texcoco pay its tribute directly to Tenochtitlan as you so ordered, and does that not still bind the land to your loyal vassal? What harm is there in his going? And so they pleaded, and their words fell pleasantly into the ears of Tezozomoc, who knew he was approaching the end of his days. The cold-blooded enmity had melted out of him in his last years, and he agreed, provided the young man not go beyond Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, and Tlacopan, the Tepanec city on the mainland from which the causeway to the island city of the Mexica began. And so Nezahualcoyotl returned to the city of his father, and for two more years occupied himself with the pleasures of the good life—the ball game played for high stakes and the joy of young women. And with subtlety he made his way back into the hearts of his people who had never entirely forgotten him.
But again Tezozomoc’s heart hardened. The image of Nezahualcoyotl came to him in a dream as his devourer in the shape of a jaguar, a wolf, and then a serpent. Utterly shaken by the dream, he again plotted the young man’s death. First he sought out Nezahualcoyotl’s friend and fellow countryman, Coyohua, to murder him. Coyohua instead warned the prince and excused himself to the old king that too many friends surrounded Nezahualcoyotl. So Tezozomoc sought to murder him when he came with the other lords of Texcoco to offer their yearly tribute. And again, the warning of this friend saved his life. With that, the last chance slipped away. Death came to Tezozomoc in 1426, huddled in his blankets set in the sun to warm himself.
The rule of his empire Tezozomoc left to his son Tayauh. To another son, Maxtla, he left the rich city of Coyohuacan. They had inherited their father’s fear and hatred of Nezahualcoyotl, and to this they added a hatred of the growing power of their own Mexica vassals. Still, they stayed their hands when Nezahualcoyotl attended the funeral of Tezozomoc at Azcapotzalco. Murdering a guest at their father’s funeral was bad form. Maxtla had other plans. As his father’s pyre sent its smoke skyward, he stunned the assembled lords by declaring that he, as the eldest of Tezozomoc’s sons was the rightful heir. As the arguments surged back and forth, Nezahualcoyotl slipped into his canoe and made his way across the lake to Texcoco.
Maxtla faced down his brother. Later he would murder him. He next turned his attention to the hated Mexica and their king, Chi-malpopoca. The young man lost his courage, and Maxtla held his life in his hand. He marvelled to see Nezahualcoyotl reappear before him in his palace at Azcapotzalco to beg for his kinsman’s life. ‘Oh Lord, great and powerful, I come to plead for the life of Chimalpopoca. He has been a precious plume over your head, and you are throwing it away. He has been a necklace of gold and jewels about your neck and you are unloosing it.’
Maxtla must have enjoyed toying with his enemies, for he bade Nezahualcoyotl to visit Chimalpopoca and reassure him. Turning to his steward, he said, ‘Does it matter whom I kill first—Nezahualcoyotl or Chimalpopoca or Tlacoteotzin (king of Tlatelolco)—kings of three cities and enemies all three!’
Nezahualcoyotl found his young kinsman imprisoned in a cage in his own city. It was apparent that, dear as he was to the Texcocan, Chimalpopoca had quailed at the prospect of war with Maxtla. That was the last time they would meet. He returned to Texcoco, and the news followed him across the lake that Chimalpopoca was dead; it was said at first to be at the hand Maxtla’s vassals from Tlacopan. But then new rumour whispered that his death had not been at Maxtla’s hand but at the hand of his own people disgusted at the thought of so weak a king. Again Nezahualcoyotl returned to Azcapotzalco to weave a disarming shield of harmlessness with talk of peace. This time he also brought his brother by the Tepanec Flower, Xiconocatzin, Maxtla’s own nephew. He had come one time too many into the lion’s den. So palpable was the danger that even Maxtla’s steward warned him of the danger. He laid flowers before Maxtla as a sign of peace, but the Tepanec king turned away from him. He withdrew in silence. Outside, one of Maxtla’s concubines approached and said her lord would meet him in the cool summer house of straw in the courtyard. He pulled his brother aside to warn him to melt into the crowds and return home. Then he disappeared inside, by all appearance entering his death chamber. Immediately he dug his way out of the back and raced through the city and across the causeway towards Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister city on the lake. Behind him raced the Tepanec warriors who had expected to find him in the straw summer house. But the prince was young and fit and unburdened by the weapons and armour of soldiers and easily outdistanced them to reach safety in Tlatelolco. From there he swiftly sped by canoe across the lake to Texcoco. The transparent peace had been torn away.
Barely had Nezahualcoyotl returned to Texcoco when the king of Tlatelolco sent to him begging for refuge. He was fleeing across the lake with his warriors and treasure ahead of Maxtla’s vengeance. Quickly upon this message came the news that Tlacateotzin had not been swift enough. Maxtla’s warriors had fallen upon him and crushed his skull. Danger was leering over Nezahualcoyotl as it had not since he fled the canyon of the flashing obsidian. Yet Maxtla attempted to strike with intrigue. Through Nezahualcoyotl’s brother, the traitor Tilmatzin, he sent an invitation to a feast. Tilmatzin had been playing both ends against the middle while Tezozomoc’s power had been slipping from his aging fingers, warning his half-brother of the old man’s plots. But now he would take no chances with a violent man like Maxtla. But again, the trap was too obvious, and again the aged royal tutor suggested that a double be sent, the same trick that had saved the life of Nezahualcoyotl’s father. A young man was found who was willing to offer his life for his king. Maxtla was happily deceived by the head of the double. He found it a deliciously gruesome warning to send to Chimalpopoca’s successor as king of Tenochtitlan. To Maxtla’s rage, Itzcoatl, uncle to both Chimalpopoca and Nezahualcoyotl, had been chosen as the new king. The rage was justified, for Itzcoatl was a man of great ability and courage. As the Tepanec messenger displayed the head of the supposed Nezahualcoyotl to Itzcoatl, the living Texcocan came out of the shadows to stand behind his uncle. ‘I am immortal. Behold, you bring my head as an offering to Itzcoatzin. And I am here before you offering my congratulations on his election.’
Maxtla now decided that a more direct approach was needed. He dispatched a delegation of generals to Texcoco to murder Nezahualcoyotl outright in his own feasthall. He was exercising in the ball court with Tilmatzin, who was all honeyed words. He had denied knowing of the murder planned by Maxtla, but when he saw the Tepanec lords arriving, he hurriedly excused himself. Nezahualcoyotl played the perfect unsuspecting host at a feast for the generals, but in a haze of incense smoke he slipped out of a hole in the wall behind his throne and fled to the mountains. Again the Tepaneca spread a wide net for him throughout the Acolhua lands, offering a huge reward for his capture. None of the Acolhua would betray him even upon the threat of death. Nevertheless, the danger was real as the Tepanec patrols swept through the countryside. He tried to persuade his loyal retainers and kinsmen to leave him and find safety in their homes.
‘“Go back to your houses and do not seek to die for me. Do not for my sake fall into disfavor with the tyrant, and thus lose your homes and lands.” Quauhtlehuantzin and Tzontecochatzin and all the others replied that they only desired to follow him and die where he died. On hearing this, Nezahualcoyotl was deeply moved, and began to weep, together with all those who accompanied him.’
It was obvious that he would need a more secure base from which to finally make his move. He then made his way across the mountains surrounding the Valley of Mexico to the court of Huexotzinco.