Hobson’s choice. Six of one and half a dozen of the other. Between a rock and a hard
place. Between the sword and the wall. All of these phrases describe
situations in which no matter what action is taken,the outcome is not favorable.
Tlahuicole (tla-whee-COE-lay) was a warrior in Tlaxcala before the Spaniards came to
Mexico and he found himself in just such a dilemma. This is his story.
Imagine: you are a young man born in the year 1497 in the Otomi people’s area of the
territory of Tlaxcala. Your home state is the smallest in what will some day be
Mexico, but it is in a strategic location….a natural crossroads from one side of
the country to the other. Aztecs control the lands all around you: their greedy eyes
coveting your fields,their thirsty weapons eager for your blood,their priests hungry
for your soul.
You were sent as a child to an elite warrior school where you trained with other
young nobles from all regions of Tlaxcala. You have strict codes of behavior deeply
embedded in your heart,and you have sworn to protect your Tlaxcala and every single
Tlaxcaltecan within its borders. You must make certain your people survive,even if
you do not.
The people you protect are merchants and farmers,struggling to maintain independence
from the Aztecs, who do not appreciate the first lesson you learned at your father’s
knee: “We do not make slaves,nor will we be slaves.” Think about how this must sound
to the Aztecs. It appears to be an innocent statement,but it is a boast,an insult,
and a promise all rolled into one tidy package.
You are a brave warrior,a good fighter and have proven yourself many times. But you
are not Tlahuicole. You are the same age,you spent your earliest days playing
together,and you trained with him in the warrior school. Yet as good as you are at
your job,he is better. He is faster,stronger,smarter in battle than you are. From
the beginning of his career Tlahuicole’s favorite weapon was a heavy war club made of
hardened clay and wood. He was so ferocious with this club that he advanced quickly
through the warrior ranks,and the mere rumor of his presence in a certain area is
sometimes enough to keep the enemy away.
You follow the warrior codes; you have felt them shape you into the man you are now.
But those same codes seem to have formed Tlahuicole into something even
greater. Something you could never hope to be: a hero. This does not make you jealous,
however. You respect him; you even love him for everything he represents. And you
would follow him to the depths of smoking Popocatapetl itself if that was what he
asked of you.
You participated in the battle that sealed Tlahuicole’s destiny. Did he truly kill
the son of the Aztec Emperor? You were on the opposite side of the field and very
busy so you did not see this happen,but you have no reason not to believe what the
other warriors were saying when the fighting was over.
Certainly the Emperor believed that Tlahuicole had killed his son. He had heard of
Tlahuicole: he knew all about this famous warrior and the codes of honor that guided
his life. The Emperor waited for the right moment: a time when Tlahuicole was busy in
yet another battle near the border. Then the Emperor hired some men from the pueblo
of San Juan Huatzingo in the neighboring state of Puebla to go to Tlahuicole and tell
him that there was much trouble in the city of Tlaxcala: that people were being
slaughtered,that he himself was the only one capable of resolving the crisis.
Knowing the reputation of Tlahuicole,the Emperor had arranged for a large group of
seasoned warriors to ambush him as he returned to Tlaxcala. But the Emperor wanted to
see this man who had killed his son,so the fighters were under strict orders to bring
him back alive. Many of them died trying to manage this,and many of Tlahuicole’s men
died also.Tlahuicole fought like a devil,but when it became obvious that he had been
beaten by sheer numbers,he told the Aztec warriors to kill him. They refused. Instead
they escorted him to the palace of the Emperor as ordered. There he repeated his
You must kill me!
The Emperor took a long look at the man standing before him. He was not very tall:
the men of Tlaxcala are not known for height. But he was every inch a warrior,from
his strongly muscled stocky body to his very bearing. He did not cower before the
Emperor as most men did. He stood proudly,aware of his worth as a warrior and as a
man. Was this the point at which the Emperor devised his plan? Or was it already in
his mind? No one will ever know. But he asked a single question,relying on the
answer to tell him his next step.
Why did you kill my son?
I am a warrior.
The Emperor understood the unspoken words behind this blunt statement. There had been
a battle and Tlahuicole had done his job. He would not have asked the name or lineage
of the man he was fighting against. So the Emperor spoke again,closely watching the
face of the warrior before him as he did so.
Very well. I understand. You are free to return to Tlaxcala.
What answer would you have given the Emperor? Would you have meekly walked out of the
palace to return home as ordered? How strong is your proud warrior spirit? How much
time would it have taken for you to give a response? Tlahuicole barely allowed the
Emperor to finish speaking before he gave his reply.
No. I cannot return. I have been defeated in a shameful manner. You must kill me.
Looking into the fierce eyes of Tlahuicole,the Emperor knew he could not waste the
life of this perhaps too proud warrior. He must find a way to use him! So he offered
No. I will not kill you. There are very few warriors of your quality. I want you to
join my army and fight for me.
What would have passed through your mind at this outrageous statement? Would you have
been tempted? And if so,why? Merely to have a chance to return to battle,fully
expecting and possibly even trying to die a true warrior’s death after your shameful
capture? Would you have considered even for a moment this option of becoming a
glorified slave? Tlahuicole did not.
No. I will not fight for you. You must kill me.
By now the Emperor was losing patience with this stubborn man.Whatever his plan had
been at the beginning,he was determined at this point to have Tlahuicole in his
service. So he made one last proposal.
No. I will not kill you. But if you do not agree to fight for me,I will take my army
and destroy Tlaxcala. Instead of killing you,I will kill every man,woman and child
in your homeland. And you will be our prisoner,forced to watch helplessly while we
slaughter the people you are sworn to protect. But if you join my army and help me
conquer the lands to the west,your precious Tlaxcala will survive and live in peace.
Now…..will you join my army and fight for me?
You are a warrior. You do not have to imagine the torment these words caused
Tlahuicole. You understand the dilemma he faced. “We do not make slaves,nor will we
be slaves.” What should he do? Turn his back on a philosophy that had shaped his
entire life or turn his back on his people? Either way,he would be named a traitor
to his homeland forever after,never able to return. Would you have been capable of
giving the answer Tlahuicole gave?
First you must swear by the blood of your son that my people will be safe from all
harm. Second,you must swear by the blood of your son that no one will know of this
arrangement. And third,you must swear by the blood of your son that you will kill me
when I return from your wars.
I swear by the blood of my son that Tlaxcala will not be attacked. I swear by the
blood of my son that our agreement will be kept secret. And I swear by the blood of
my son that IF you return from the western wars I will kill you.
The oaths were easy for the Emperor to make. And they would be just as easy to ignore
later. But he had his man. What would it cost to make a few promises and see that
they were kept? A snap of his fingers,nothing more. Meanwhile,with Tlahuicole in his
army the Emperor had a better chance to win the lands to the west,which had so far
And so it was over. Tlahuicole joined the Aztec army and prepared to leave for the
fighting in the western regions of the country. He was considered a free prisoner,and
was treated with the respect his warrior status deserved.
You had not been with the army during that last border fight. You were on easy duty
in peaceful Tlaxcala City. And you were in the market when the first news began to
arrive: Tlahuicole had suddenly left the battle,taking a small group of warriors
towards Tlaxcala,leaving orders for more to make their way there as soon as possible.
Now here were the extra warriors, but they had seen no sign of either Tlahuicole or
the men who had been with him,except for marks of vicious fighting
in one area. It seemed obvious that Tlahuicole and his men had been captured.
Tlahuicole captured? You were so stunned at the idea that you did not notice the
woman who turned pale at the news and rushed to speak quietly with one of the
local traders,the only Tlaxcaltecans who were allowed beyond the borders into Aztec
territory. They left together not long afterwards. Would you have had her courage?
She knew the consequences for unauthorized people attempting to cross the borders. But
she did not care. She had to try. She wore no disguise. She was very proud of her
identity,and she was relying on that identity to help her arrive at her destination:
the Emperor’s palace.
At the first checkpoint the woman was detained. The Aztecs were preparing to kill her
when she told them who she was and why she was travelling. This information caused a
great deal of confusion.The guards knew she should have been killed instantly,but if
she was who she said she was,it might be better to wait. So they sent a runner with
the question: What are they supposed to do with a woman who says she is the wife of
She was the daughter of a Tlaxcaltecan nobleman who had given her to Tlahuicole in
gratitude after a battle,according to custom. He had been surprised and delighted to
discover in her the same bold spirit he had. So when she was delivered under guard
to the house he had been given,Tlahuicole accepted her arrival with pride, for he
knew that she herself had made the choice to share his fate.
The army soon left on their mission. Tlahuicole spent the next three years fighting
alongside his lifelong enemies. This alone was torture,but he also had to deal with
the fact that he was helping to steal treasure from innocent people and was sending
these same people into slavery. The only thing that brought joy to his heart during
this time were reports he received about the peace in Tlaxcala. There had been no
attacks against his homeland since the day he met with the Emperor. He let that fact
comfort him: at least he had saved his people for the time being,even if he felt his
own spirit dying a little more each day.
And what did you know at this point? There were rumors about Tlahuicole. You had
heard he was now fighting for the Aztecs. Did you brand him a traitor as did nearly
every citizen of Tlaxcala? After all,he had simply disappeared after one battle and
reappeared later with the enemy. How else to explain the fact that he was still alive
after his capture? Did you ever think beyond what everyone was saying? And even if
you had connected the two ideas,a peaceful Tlaxcala and a Tlahuicole fighting for the
Emperor,would that have changed your mind? No,of course not. For whatever reason,
Tlahuicole had made himself a slave,defying the ruling philosophy of Tlaxcala. To you
this made him a pariah. If he had dared show his face in Tlaxcala again you would
have been the first to attack your former hero.
Finally the Aztec army arrived at the principal city in the western region. In the
early stages of battle one of the main leaders of the Aztecs was seriously wounded.
This so demoralized the entire army that the other captains made the decision
to call off the war and return home.The moment he arrived Tlahuicole went to see the
Emperor,standing before him as boldly as he had the first time.
I have kept my side of the bargain. Now you must keep yours. You must kill me.
As he had years before,the Emperor took a long look at Tlahuicole before answering.
Nothing had changed in the warrior’s outward appearance,but the Emperor noticed a new
suffering in the dark eyes glaring at him. Once he had thought this warrior was
perhaps too proud. Now the pain in those fierce eyes revealed the inner demons
Tlahuicole had lived with in order to protect his homeland;but the pride was still
there. The Emperor aimed for that pride when he spoke.
You have served me well,Tlahuicole. I could not have asked for a better slave.
Any other man might have fallen to the floor under the weight of those words. You
certainly would not have been able to endure that bald fact being thrown in your
face. But I remind you….you are not Tlahuicole.
He did not even flinch. His empty right hand curled slowly into a fist,as if taking a
firmer grip on his favorite war club,confiscated when he entered the palace.
He seemed suddenly to be dangerously close to the Emperor,even though he had not
taken a single step. His eyes never left the Emperor’s face,and now the warrior
allowed the intense hatred for his enemy to show clearly.If there had been knives in
Tlahuicole’s eyes,the Emperor would have died on the spot.
The very air around Tlahuicole became charged with energy,and for the first
time the Emperor understood that here was a true warrior. He had not actually believed
all the reports about Tlahuicole. And he had seen nothing in their last meeting to
convince him that the man was anything more than a well-trained,extremely stubborn,
overly proud Tlaxcaltecan fighter. But now he was witnessing what few men saw and
lived to tell about: Tlahuicole in full battle readiness,poised like a jaguar about
to leap on his prey,surrounded by a power that pinned the Emperor to his throne,
unable to look away from those stabbing eyes.
Tlahuicole knew he could easily reach the throne and kill the Emperor before the
guards could react. He saw that the Emperor was aware of this also. Both men
knew he would not attempt such a thing,however. Not only would the consequences for
Tlaxcala be brutal,no honorable warrior would behave in such a manner.
Tlahuicole allowed himself to relax. He had made his point without saying a word:
he had held the Emperor’s life in his hands, had found it not worth taking,and had
tossed it back to him in contempt. He waited calmly for whatever response his enemy
would make to this grave insult.
The Emperor knew he had to say or do something to gain control of the situation.But
what? Obviously his taunt had not had the desired effect. How else could he prove
that he had more power than this irritating Tlaxcaltecan? He needed to think clearly,
but this was not easy to do with Tlahuicole constantly staring at him like an eagle
about to capture a snake in its talons. The Emperor had noticed the subtle relaxing of
Tlahuicole’s body,and he no longer felt trapped by the warrior’s energy,so he took
a few moments to gather his thoughts before he spoke.
You have been such a good slave that you have earned your freedom. You may go. I give
you your life.
Tlahuicole’s answer came quickly,using what you would recognize as his war voice: a
deep growl designed to be heard over the noise of battle.
MY LIFE IS NOT YOURS TO GIVE. YOU MUST KILL ME.
Time stood as still as Tlahuicole while his challenge echoed through the room. If
you had been there,you would have been both proud and ashamed. Proud of this
Tlaxcaltecan warrior who was not only bold enough to maintain his principals with
such spirit,but to demand that the Aztec Emperor honor their agreement. And ashamed
that you had ever considered Tlahuicole anything less than a hero.
The Emperor realized he could push no further. He had to admit that the warrior had
more power than he himself did. He had never expected to discover such strength of
character in this man from Tlaxcala,even though he understood the training that would
have helped develop the trait. His own warriors underwent similar training,but none
of them had this warrior’s intensity of spirit. The Emperor decided that Tlahuicole
deserved to be honored with a glorious death. Once again he watched Tlahuicole’s face
as he spoke.
Very well. I will kill you. On the stone.
Did the Emperor expect a reaction to his statement? There was none. All warriors were
familiar with the use of the stone,a round platform with a small pillar at one edge.
A captive enemy was fastened to this pillar by a thick cord around the waist,and was
killed quickly. Tlahuicole would have been surprised only if there had been no
mention of the stone. But the Emperor had more to say.
You are a excellent warrior,Tlahuicole. You deserve to die in battle. So when you are
fastened to the stone,you will have your war club and a small shield. Then you
will fight against thirty of my most elite warriors. This will happen eight days from
now. Prepare yourself!
The Emperor saw a reaction this time,and it sent a cold shiver down his spine. Because
You were on patrol in Tlaxcala late the next day when the first travelling merchants
arrived with the news: Tlahuicole to fight thirty Aztecs on the stone! How did the
people react? You and everyone else had branded the man a traitor years ago. Some
might wonder how many of the hated Aztecs he would be able to kill before he died.
Others would say that death on the stone was what he deserved. As a Tlaxcaltecan you
agreed with them,but as a warrior you were proud that Tlahuicole would die fighting
instead of merely being sacrificed.
The day you heard about them,the festivities surrounding Tlahuicole’s death fight had
already begun. There would be six more days of games,demonstrations of skill by
Aztec warriors,and sacrifices. The spectacle was supposed to prove the power of the
Emperor and his people,and Tlahuicole would be in attendance each day. By now the
Emperor knew better than to think that the Tlaxcaltecan warrior would be moved by
what he would see,but he did watch Tlahuicole closely during the sacrificial
ceremonies on the seventh day,for that was when Tlahuicole’s wife was to be among the
From the day she had left Tlaxcala,Tlahuicole’s wife had prepared herself for the
moment when her heart would be taken and fed to her husband. She knew that
she must maintain her bold spirit to the very end,so that her courage would be passed
on to him. She would not allow the enemy to see any weakness. Perhaps the Aztecs
thought that by taking in her female spirit he would be less brave in his fight.
But she knew they were wrong: he would be even stronger.
They could see each other across the plaza. She filled her eyes and heart with his
image and the love she had for him. When she saw his empty right hand begin to curl
slowly into a fist,she braced herself and sent all her energy to him. She did not
even feel the blow when it came.
Tlahuicole watched one of the priests take his wife’s heart and give it to another,
who took it to the cook fires. He never took his eyes from the heart,and when it was
brought to him,he ate slowly,feeling the power of her spirit filling his body. Then
Tlahuicole looked towards the Emperor. And once again he smiled.
The eighth day arrived. The thirty chosen Aztec warriors were ready for their moment
of glory,the priests were ready for more of their rituals,the Emperor and the people
were ready for their entertainment. And Tlahuicole was ready to fight.
You heard about it a few days later. How Tlahuicole had been escorted to the stone,
fastened securely,given his war club and a small shield. You knew the fearful
image he would make as he swung the club a time or two,then took his battle stance,
prepared for the first of the Aztecs to approach. The traders told you it began
slowly,one or two warriors attacking first. But apparantly after eight of his most
elite warriors had been killed,the Emperor lost his patience and made a signal that
allowed the rest to charge in a group,overpowering Tlahuicole,who still managed to
wound twenty before his club was wrestled out of his hand and tossed away.
Were you surprised at what the trader told you next? You expected to hear that
Tlahuicole had actually died on the stone during his death battle. But the man said
that the Aztecs had picked him up and carried him to the altar of their god
Huitzilopchtli,where the priests cut out his living heart and divided it between
the bleeding survivors.
And so it was over. The year was 1519. Tlahuicole had been twenty-two years old,the
same age as you. He was the greatest warrior to ever live in the state of Tlaxcala,
and even though outwardly you would still agree with those who insisted he was a
traitor to his homeland,on the inside you began once again to love and respect him.
copyright Debbie Zapata April 2012