Back | Next

Chapter 13

The military training which Joseph and his lieutenants had reinstituted—indeed, taken far beyond the level achieved by Hector Quintero—was soon put to use.

A scouting patrol reported the appearance, on the lower southern slope of the Chiton, of a small party of gukuy slavers. The identity of this party as slavers was confirmed by the Pilgrims of the Way (as the gukuy from the big valley called themselves), when they heard the scouts' report. The gukuy on the slope were bearing large manacle-like devices, identical to ones discovered on the bodies of the earlier group of invaders. The Pilgrims informed Joseph that these devices were employed exclusively by slavers seeking owoc. The devices had no military use whatsoever.

Two platoons—Ludmilla's and Takashi's—set forth immediately to destroy the slaver party, with Joseph in overall command. Joseph chose those two platoons because Takashi's platoon had been experimenting with the use of shields, in addition to the light "sortabamboo" armor with which all the platoons were equipped. Joseph wanted to learn from practical experience whether the experiment would bear fruit. If so, he would arm all three platoons with shields. If not, Takashi's platoon would resume training with spears only.

The slaver party had moved. It took the human warriors almost another day to find them. The slavers had apparently chosen to approach the mountain-top through one of the smaller canyons. (Joseph took note of the problem; thereafter scouting patrols were instructed to continue shadowing the enemy, sending back only one individual to report.)

During the middle of that night, the humans surrounded the slaver camp on both sides of the canyon. Joseph thought that the slavers would not expect an attack directly down the slopes of the canyon, given the gukuy difficulty with steep terrain. (In this regard, he proved to be correct; and took note.) He also thought that by attacking in the middle of the night the humans would completely surprise the slavers. (In this regard, he proved to be wrong; and took note.)

The attack did not surprise the slavers. At least, not in the sense that Joseph had intended. As soon as the first human warrior began moving down the slope, the inhumanly perceptive eyes of the gukuy camp guard spotted her. The guard instantly raised the alarm. By the time the first human reached the base of the canyon (within seconds), all of the gukuy slavers were roused and armed.

Joseph was deeply impressed by the quick reactions of the gukuy; and took note. Later, in the course of discussions with the Pilgrims of the Way, he learned that the slavers' reactions had been unusually quick. The Pilgrims thought that these slavers had been exceptionally edgy—no doubt because they were fearful of Kiktu. He filed the information away; but ordered the platoons to increase their wind sprints and emphasized training in rapid movement over rough terrain.

Although Joseph failed to achieve the surprise he had intended, the net effect was hardly any different. The gukuy simply stared in shock and amazement at the bizarre shapes flickering down the mountain sides toward them, at a speed they could barely comprehend. Six of the ten slavers were butchered before any of them so much as moved. The remaining four did not survive more than fifteen seconds. Only one of them put up any kind of effective resistance at all. She managed to inflict a minor wound on a boy's upper arm before his spear went into her brain.

The boy was one of Ludmilla's warriors. A girl in Takashi's platoon was much more seriously injured. The injury resulted not so much from any skill on the part of her opponent, but from the fact that the large shield she was carrying had caused her to fall off balance when she reached the floor of the canyon. She was unable to move back quickly enough when the last surviving slaver almost accidentally flailed her leg. The slaver died immediately thereafter from three spear thrusts. But the girl's leg was horribly mangled. So horribly, in fact, that she limped for the rest of her life and was unable to remain in the platoon.

(A fact which upset her deeply, until Joseph appointed her to replace Takashi as the head of the fortification project. The girl threw herself into the effort, as a result of which the mountain's fortifications took shape far more quickly than would have happened otherwise. Over the years, Adrian Harabi would become famed as the shrewdest designer of fortifications—and siege tactics—of any being in the known portion of Ishtar. But she would always take her deepest satisfaction from the first fortified wall she constructed, across the big canyon of the Chiton. The wall would ever after be called "Adrian's Wall," to Indira's amusement.)

Despite the casualties, Joseph considered the ambush a great success. An entire party of slavers had been exterminated. But more importantly, he and his warriors had learned much.

The shields were immediately discarded. Nine out of the ten slavers had been slain by members of Ludmilla's platoon—principally because they had arrived at the canyon floor several seconds before any of the shield-laden members of the other platoon. It was obvious that the protection provided by the shields was a poor exchange for lessened mobility.

Over the next two days, Joseph assessed the results of the battle with his platoon lieutenants and Jens Knudsen. In the end, they adopted what would become the central principle of the little human army's military doctrine. Speed and mobility are the heart of victory. All else is subordinate.

It was a simple idea, to them; even obvious. When they told Indira of their conclusion, she said nothing. She could have encouraged them, for she knew they were right. She could have reinforced their conclusion with a thousand illustrations from human history, had she so chosen. Indeed, Joseph waited patiently for long minutes before he walked away, the stiffness in his face the only indication of the deep hurt at her silence. Soon thereafter, his lieutenants followed him, their expressions equally stiff. Only Jens Knudsen remained behind; but he was silent, and would not look at her.


Some part of Indira wept, as she watched the tall figure of the boy she loved walk away from her. A breach had occurred, she knew. It would only widen in the years ahead; and might never be healed.

But she could not speak. Her love of Joseph had, in that moment, been overwhelmed by dread.

Of him. Barely eighteen, the boy was, with no experience or training to guide him. Yet, in one battle—not even a battle, a minor skirmish—he had grasped the secret which had eluded the vast majority of humanity's generals throughout the long and bloody history of the species.

The advent of mechanized warfare had made the secret obvious—but, even then, not in time to prevent the ghastly slaughter of the trenches in World War I. The Nazi blitzkrieg tactics had finally burned the lesson home, a generation later.

Of course, the secret had been known earlier. Much earlier, and by more than one general or people. But never, Indira knew, had the secret been taken closer to heart than by a people whose technology was barely Neolithic. A people who had created the greatest empire in the history of the human race.

As she watched Joseph Adekunle walk away, Indira did not see a tall boy whose ancestors had lived in the rain forest of West Africa. She saw the much shorter and lighter-skinned ghost of a different man, from a different continent.

The maneuvers of that man's armies had been measured in degrees of latitude and longitude, despite the fact that their only vehicles were horses and camels. His soldiers were reputed by his defeated foes to have been an innumerable "horde"; yet, in actual fact, he had been outnumbered in every battle he won. And he won almost all his battles. He had developed principles of discipline combined with lower-level initiative which, to his bewildered and hapless victims, had seemed like magic on the battlefield. He, and his fellow generals, had incorporated the systematic use of artillery into warfare, more than half a millenium before Napoleon. He had, centuries before the invention of electronic communication, discovered the centrality of what a word-besotted later culture would call CCCI— "communication, control, command and intelligence."

His armies, which continued his traditions after his death, shattered every realm which opposed them. China, the most powerful civilization of the epoch, had fallen to them. The cumbersome armies of Europe, moving like snails beneath iron shells, had been slaughtered like lambs. The vastnesses of the Russian forest and people defeated every invader which came against them, throughout history. Except once. Except when they were conquered by armies trained and led by the greatest general the human race ever produced.

Subedei Bat'atur. Born into the Reindeer people, an extremely primitive and obscure tribe related to another obscure and only slightly less primitive tribe, called the Mongols.

Subedei Bat'atur. Commander of the tumens, the 10,000 strong divisions of Genghis Khan's armies.

By his lights, and those of his people, Subedei Bat'atur had been neither cruel nor sadistic. The Mongols simply approached warfare as a practical task, to be carried out as efficiently as possible. The nomads—derided as superstitious savages by the civilized peoples who surrounded them—had, in fact, studied warfare with the clear and unblinkered eyes of a child. They experimented with the tactics and methods of their enemies, and adopted those which they found useful. For all the breathtaking scope of their vision—which was nothing less than the conquest of the entire known world—they were neither haughty nor arrogant. Quite unlike the vastly more cultured Chinese mandarins and the (much less vastly) cultured knights of Europe, who thought there was nothing to be learned from others.

The Mongols taught them otherwise. Or, at least, taught them to fear what they could not understand or learn.

In truth, Indira had always had a certain genuine admiration for the Mongols. The commonly accepted verdict of later history, she thought, was quite unfair. The Europeans who, at the time, had been able to do nothing more than pray for deliverance (which they received, simply because the Mongols, having already conquered half of Europe, decided the other half wasn't worth it) had taken their scholarly revenge centuries later. The Mongols had become synonomous with pure and simple brutality.

How many people knew, Indira wondered, that the Mongols instituted and enforced a policy of religious toleration which was unheard of in the Middle Ages? (She even smiled, then, in that moment of heartbreak, remembering the time that the Great Khan Mongke invited representatives from all the great religions to come to the imperial capital at Qarakorum. They had come—representatives from Islam, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism—and had debated theology before the Great Khan and his court. Gritting their teeth, because the holy men were accustomed to other methods of settling accounts with heretics and nonbelievers. But the debate had not degenerated into violence. Not with the Mongol tumens prepared to enforce the law.)

How many people knew that the Mongols fostered the greatest explosion of trade and commerce that had ever taken place prior to that time between China and the western lands of Islam and Christendom? That they built, in China, twenty-seven observatories—and then invited the world's greatest astronomers to come from Persia to help the Chinese learn to use them? That the Mongols built hospitals and even a medical academy, institutions which would have mystified the Europeans of the time?

Almost no one, thought Indira, beyond a few professional historians. Whatever the glories of their later rule, the methods which the Mongols used to create that rule were all that remained in the common memory of the human race.

An admirable people, in many ways. But they had approached warfare with the clear eyes of a young and unfettered people. They had examined war, and grasped its secret.

Speed above all else. Mobility above all else.

Utter ruthlessness.

Their victims had numbered in the millions.

She watched Joseph walk away, paralyzed between the warm heart of a mother and the cold brain of an historian.


Julius soon noticed the quiet estrangement between Indira and Joseph, and was greatly distressed. In his clumsy way, he attempted to intervene. Indira, at first, denied that there was any such estrangement. Denied it hotly, in fact; and accused Julius of various unsavory psychological traits. She was lying, Julius knew—perhaps as much to herself as to him. He knew she was lying because the accusations had been grotesquely unfair (if not totally groundless). Indira's criticisms of Julius were normally rather mild—but excruciatingly accurate.

He then approached Joseph. At first, the boy also denied that any estrangement existed. But he did not throw up a cloud of anger. So Julius persevered, until he managed to crack, slightly, the shell of hurt which Joseph had erected.

"She is keeping secrets from me, Julius. Secrets I must learn."

Julius was dumbfounded. "Secrets? What secrets?"

Joseph groped for words. "Things she knows. She is wise, Julius. She is the wisest being that exists. Especially in those matters which are at the heart of things."

The boy gestured, in a way which encompassed both the village and the lands beyond.

"How people live, and grow. What roads they must take, and which they must avoid."

His face grew hard.

"And she also knows the secrets of war. And she will not tell me. My mother has abandoned me, when I need her most."

He refused to speak further. And Julius did not press him, for he understood the boy was right.

Yet, he also understood the fear possessing Indira. He did not feel that fear so deeply, himself. Perhaps it was because he was wiser; or, perhaps, more foolish. More likely, he thought, it was because he saw the world through the eyes of a biologist rather than an historian. A paleontologist, to boot—for whom all of life is a grand and glorious testament to the inevitability of extinction; and to the new life for which that extinction makes room.

As a human with a good heart, he regretted the suffering of the past. But he thought it had been a necessary evil, an inescapable part of the progress of humanity. Indira, ironically, had a considerably cooler personality than Julius. And she knew, even better than he, that the anguish of human history had been the inevitable accompaniment of human advancement. But she also knew—far, far better than Julius—just how truly horrible and protracted that anguish had been.

Historical suffering, to Julius—as to most people of the early 22nd century—was a pale shadow, an abstraction. He had heard of things, even read about them. He knew who the Mongols were. And Tamerlane.

But Indira had walked the barren vastnesses of Central Asia, where a great civilization had flourished while Europe was a land of fur-clad savages. Before the Mongols came, and Tamerlane. Julius had heard of those things, and read about them upon occasion. Indira had studied the chronicles, and looked at the ruins.

And the bones.

To the warm-hearted Julius, bones were the stuff of his trade. To the cool and distant Indira, each bone had cried out with agony; and horror.

Common bones. Not buried in great sepulchres. The bones of illiterate peasants, lying where they had been kicked aside by conquerors. The bones of the ocean of humanity, the uncountable multitudes of unknown people whose little lives had been the real stuff of history. Without whose endless toil, suffering and perseverance, nothing else would have been possible.

It could be said that the end result of human history had been worth the cost. It was said often, in fact, in the 22nd century. By professional historians as well as laymen.

Indira did not disagree with that assessment. As an historian—certainly as a woman—she had not the slightest romantic illusions about the realities of human life during the long childhood of the species. That period, tens of thousands of years in duration, when a relative handful of hunters and gatherers had been simply a part of the biological landscape of the planet. Tiny cultures, which had been characterized by a degree of social egalitarianism which would not be recaptured until the last century of human history.

Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years of relative peace and social tranquillity. And, she knew as well, lives of utter ignorance; ending at an age when modern humans were barely out of school.

No, modern civilization was worth the price it had cost. Indira had no doubt of it. Many times, back on Earth, she had closed the book she was reading; and heaved a sigh of relief that she was fortunate enough not to have been born in the past. Any part of that past—prehistorical or civilized. She had been blessed with the rare good fortune not to have been a hunter-gatherer; or a slave; or a peasant toiling in the fields of her lord; or the victim of a bombing raid.

Indira knew she had been blessed beyond belief. She had been born in the 22nd century. At the only time in the history of the human race when life was truly all it could be. A time when the daughter of Bengali peasants and Bolivian tin miners could aspire to anything.

And had. She had aspired to the stars, and reached them.

Until, caught in disaster, a courageous captain had chosen to include an historian among the handful of adults who would survive the catastrophe. Plunged, before she was knew what was happening, back into the Bronze Age.

Years ago, Indira had stopped wondering why Captain Knudsen had included her among the survivors. She knew. He had known that, if they survived, his children would need a guide through the terrors of history.

She tried to explain her dilemma to that Captain's son. For, of all the young leaders of the colony, Jens Knudsen was now the least distant. She tried to explain that history held no "secrets"; that there was no guide through its terrors; that anything she would try would inevitably fail of its purpose—not immediately, but over time, twisted into unforeseen pathways. Stumblingly, she tried to explain that the personal freedom, equality and social justice which 22nd century humanity took for granted was the end product of millenia of struggle and suffering. She tried to explain that, in the end, the precondition for that progress was the vast wealth of modern society, which was itself another end product of the long, tortuous, bitter road of history.

How then could she show them the way forward? In a new Bronze Age, a new Time of Troubles, on a new planet? All she could see in the future was an endless vista of pain. Every way forward led nowhere but down, twisting and winding back into the nightmare coils of ancient history.

Jens had listened patiently to her explanation. When she was done, he had simply shrugged.

"I don't doubt you," he said, "but I don't think you really understand. Joseph is absolutely right, and you are absolutely wrong."

"Why?" she cried.

Jens stood and looked down at her. His face, then, had been as cold as Joseph's.

"Because history is not something that used to happen. It is happening now, and we are in it. And things have to be understood, as best we can, and then things will have to be done, as best we can, and we will have to do them. Alone."

He began to walk away, and then turned back.

"I was too young when my father died to remember him. I know only that he tried to do the impossible—he tried to land a spaceship that was never designed for planetfall. He failed, but at least he tried."

* * *

For months after that episode, Indira was plunged into a deep depression. She dealt with it by monomaniacally immersing herself in the language and culture of the gukuy pilgrims.

During that period, she learned much of their language and culture. Enough to develop a profound admiration for the gukuy of the big valley—coupled with an equally profound fear.

For Indira also, it was one thing to know a truth in the abstract. Another to grasp it in all its concrete permutations.

It was, indeed, a Time of Troubles.

She had intended, as her first act, to convene a meeting of the council, where she would explain the truth to the leaders of the human colony. But when Adrian Harabi approached her, and hesitantly asked for advice concerning the fortified wall she was building, Indira changed her plans.

First things first. She was ruefully amused to see how easily even she could make that decision. It was indeed true, as Samuel Johnson had once said, that the prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully.

So she accompanied Adrian to the proposed site of the wall. Soon they were joined by Joseph and his lieutenants.

Joseph was stiff and distant, at first. But as Indira began explaining the historical experience of the human race—the hard-learned techniques of fortifications and siege tactics—she could see the old warmth returning to his face.

She was both happy and sad to see it. Happy, for she loved the boy, and was gladdened to see his love for her returning. And sad, for the means of its return was his eager apprenticeship in the science of slaughter.


When the meeting convened the next day, Indira began by saying that the language of the pilgrims should no longer be referred to as "gukuy." It would be like calling the languages of Earth "human." There were five languages represented among the gukuy on the mountain, she explained to the council.

"The main language is Anshaku. That's the dominant language of the Ansha Prevalate, the great empire to the south."

"How far south?" demanded Joseph immediately.

Indira understood his concern.

"I don't think we need to worry about the Anshac, Joseph. At least, not in the immediate future. Most of the gukuy in the big valley—there are about sixty of them, by the way, and they call themselves the Pilgrims of the Way—are from Ansha. From the helot class, mostly, although there are several former members of the lesser warrior clans—"

She paused, observing their confusion.

"Perhaps I'd better fill you in on the general picture."

A sharp look at Julius.

"If the crotchety member of the council will refrain from sarcastic remarks on the subject of professorialism."

"We are all ears, Indira," responded Anna Cheng immediately.

"I will silence the old crank, if necessary," added Ludmilla.

Indira repressed a smile, seeing the look of outrage on Julius' face.

"The social structure of the gukuy empires—let's call them that, for the moment—has basic parallels to the civilized societies of Earth's Bronze Age. Unstable empires. Independent principalities and city-states. Constant warfare and conquest. Dynastic revolts—except that the gukuy don't really have dynasties.

"That's the biggest difference between the gukuy empires and any human parallel. The reproductive methods of the gukuy don't allow for the development of dynasties—at least, not in the sense that humans use the term. The King begat a King, who begat a King, and so forth."

"They'd be queens," interjected Anna.

Indira shook her head. "No, not even that. I made the same mistake, at first. I assumed that gukuy society would be matriarchal, in the sense that human societies became patriarchal after the Neolothic revolution. But the differences between gukuy and humans run deeper than that. True, the females are dominant. In that sense, you could describe gukuy society as 'matriarchal.' But the gukuy females are not mothers. The gukuy don't have a simple two-sex system. Each sex is further divided. The big majority of gukuy are sterile females. They do most of the work, and the fighting. And they dominate gukuy society on every level.

"You have to understand what this complex sexual relationship means. The sterile females dominate gukuy society, but they are not the ones who produce offspring. So the simple hereditary transmission of power and wealth which characterized the patriarchal societies of Earth's early civilizations can't apply here. There's still a transmission of power and wealth. There has to be, for any ruling class to maintain its cohesiveness. But it works indirectly, through a sort of clan system. All gukuy in a given clan are born to a certain generation of mothers. No one knows which particular mother, because the gukuy—like the owoc—are largely indifferent to new-born spawn. Most of the spawn die off quickly, from disease and—"

She couldn't stop herself from grimacing.

"—from predating on each other. The ones who survive are adopted into the clan. The clans trace their lineage through a succession of generations of mothers, even though the offspring are not the direct descendants of the sterile females who actually rule.

"The end result is a social structure which has no close parallel on Earth. Within each clan, among the members of a particular generation, the relations between the sterile females seem to be relatively egalitarian. Even rather democratic, apparently, in the barbarian tribes. Power and prestige seem largely to accrue through personal achievement.

"But between the clans, and, to a lesser extent, between the generations, relations are based on strict hierarchic domination. That's why the proper term for these 'empires' is prevalates. Ansha, for instance, is that realm in which the Ansha clan prevails over all others."

"Where do the mothers fit into all this?" asked Maria De Los Reyes.

Indira shrugged. "They are highly venerated—especially the oldest mothers, who are called the Paramount Mothers. But they do not seem to have much in the way of real power. I'm reminded of the old Japanese imperial system. The Emperor was a revered figure—a god-like figure, actually. But his duties were essentially religious. Real power lay in the hands of the shoguns, the warlords.

"At least, that's the way it seems to be in the southern societies. But I want to emphasize a point here. Do not assume that all gukuy societies are the same. Among the barbarian tribes, the mothers seem to possess a great deal of actual authority—despite the fact that they are not venerated. In fact, the main tribe even has a class of young mothers whom they call 'battlemothers.' These battlemothers participate in warfare alongside the warriors until they become old enough to start producing offspring. The civilized societies seem to view this custom with disgust."

She took a deep breath.

"And there is a new and powerful tribe rising in the far west, called the Utuku, in which the pattern of sterile female warrior dominance is carried to the extreme. All eumales are slaughtered; as well as all truemales beyond the mininum necessary. The mothers are not venerated, they are simply slaves. Breeders. The Utuku even cripple them at birth."

Indira shuddered slightly. "And they eat the owoc."

A gasp swept the hut.

"It's true. Nor are the Utuku simply cannibalistic toward their owoc cousins. They also practice cannibalism on other gukuy."

"Are all of the barbarian tribes so cruel?" asked Ludmilla.

Indira shook her head. "No. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are a number of tribes living to the west. Pastoralists. There is apparently a type of animal on Ishtar which we've never seen. The gukuy call them 'gana,' and they seem to be the equivalent of cattle. Or sheep."

Julius leaned forward, his ears practically standing out.

"The dominant tribe is called the Kiktu. Barbarians, of course. But the Kiktu religion venerates the owoc. Some sort of animistic totemism, I imagine. The end result is that the Kiktu not only do not mistreat the owoc themselves, but they will not allow others to do so. There has been at least one tribe massacred by the Kiktu for mistreating owoc, according to the Pilgrims. And they tell me that the reason the owoc on the Chiton are so rarely molested is because the region south of the Chiton is Kiktu territory. The Pilgrims themselves fled to the Chiton partly because they thought they would be safe here from persecution. But they had to obtain permission from the Kiktu to pass through their territory. Slavers never come here, according to the Pilgrims, for fear of the Kiktu."

"Then why did that slaving party come here not so long ago?" asked Julius.

Indira's face grew grim. "It seems the Kiktu have been preoccupied, of late. They have been marshalling an alliance of other tribes for war against the invaders."

"What invaders?"

She looked to the southwest, as if she could see through the walls of the hut and the mountainside beyond.

"The Utuku. The cannibals are on the march."


Interlude: Nukurren

During the two days after regaining consciousness, Nukurren spent much of her time, while awake, observing the demons, and discussing her observations with Dhowifa. She was not awake for long, however, and less and less as time passed. Disease had seized her in its grip, and she felt herself growing weaker.

The white demon Dzhenushkunutushen was frequently to be found walking alongside Nukurren's litter. On occasion, he was joined by the female demon Ludumilaroshokavashiki—or Ludumila, as the male demon called her. Nukurren attempted to ask them about themselves, but the demons fended off all such inquiries. On the third day, to Nukurren's surprise, they began asking her about her own life.

At first, Nukurren tried to satisfy them with a few short sentences. But the demons insisted on a full account.

So, in the end, Nukurren obliged.

She had been born a helot in the Ansha Prevalate, clanless and outcast. Her earliest memories consisted of nothing but drudgery in the fields of the high clans, endless days waking at dawn and toiling till dusk. Even the simple pleasures of friendship with other young helots had been denied her, for she was ugly, and overlarge, and generally silent.

One day, driven beyond endurance by a particularly brutal overseer, she had turned upon her. The overseer had beaten Nukurren savagely with her flail, but Nukurren was already—though not yet fully grown—of unusual size and strength. She had wrested the flail from the overseer and had begun repaying her tormentor in kind, before she was overcome by many overseers drawn to the fracas.

Nukurren herself had almost been beaten to death, then. She still bore on her mantle the scars of that flailing. She pointed them out to the demons.

Ludumila ran her hand down the side of Nukurren's mantle. It was the first time a demon had touched her since the demonlord withdrew the demon weapons. Nukurren found the touch gentle and tender.

"There are so many scars here," said Ludumila softly.

"And I thought I was bad," said Dzhenushkunutushen. The demon grinned and took off his armor. His upper torso now exposed, Nukurren could see that the milky white flesh bore several ugly, puckered marks.

"That was my first wound," said Dzhenushkunutushen, pointing to an especially large scar on the upper portion of his left arm. "I got it in my first battle."

"How?" asked Nukurren. Dzhenushkunutushen began to explain, but was interrupted by Ludumila.

"Being stupid! Using his muscles instead of his brain."

Dzhenushkunutushen grinned again, and made the motion with his upper torso which Nukurren had learn to interpret as the gesture of bemused uncertainty. "I'm prone to that," admitted the demon.

"Yes, you are!" said the female demon forcefully. To Nukurren, her posture seemed stiff and rigid. After a moment, however, her posture relaxed. She extended a hand and took the hand of Dzhenushkunutushen.

"You have to stop doing that, Jens," she said softly. Nukurren observed as the two demons stick-pedded alongside her litter, hand holding hand. Had they been gukuy, she realized, their mantles would be glowing green, and it seemed to her the strangest thing she had ever encountered in a loveless world, that demons could love.

Some time later, Dzhenushkunutushen looked back at Nukurren.

"What happened then?" he asked.

"I was condemned to slavery, and sold to a slavemaster. I spent the next many eightyweeks chained and yoked, pulling a sledge filled with trade goods to the market in Shakutulubac. I finished my growth during that time, and by the end I was very strong."

Dhowifa interrupted. "Nukurren is the strongest gukuy who ever lived," said the truemale proudly. "Except for a mother, of course." Nukurren noticed that her lover's Kiktu had improved considerably over the past few days, even though Dhowifa spoke rarely in the presence of the demons.

"Is that true?" asked Dzhenushkunutushen.

Nukurren made the gesture of bemused uncertainty.

"Who can know? I am the strongest gukuy that I have ever met."

"She is also the fastest gukuy who ever lived," added Dhowifa. The little truemale's mantle was rippling with that shade of green which signified pride and admiration.

"Is that true?" asked Dzhenushkunutushen.

Again, Nukurren made the gesture of bemused uncertainty. "Who can know? I am the fastest gukuy that I have ever met. Stop bragging, Dhowifa."

"Why?" demanded her lover. "It's all true! And that's all that saved you from the yoke."

"What happened?" asked Ludumilla.

"One day, in the market, I was seen by a captain of the Anshac legions. She was seeking recruits for a new legion, and she bought me from my owner. I was sent to the training camps to become a warrior."

"Were you freed?" asked Dzhenushkunutushen.

"Not then."

"Did you try to escape?"

"No. To what purpose? Where would I go?" Nukurren made the gesture of resignation. "I was not unhappy at the change. The work was much easier. It is true that I met with no friendship in the ranks of the legion. I was a slave, and despised even by the lowclan recruits. But I did not care."

Nukurren fell silent, mastering the lie. She had cared, and cared deeply, and had spent many nights in the camps filled with aching loneliness. But her shoroku, as always, allowed no trace of her emotions to show.

"You are lying," said the demon Dzhenushkunutushen.

Nukurren stared at him, wondering how a monster could see into her soul. Then she made the gesture of agreement.

"Yes, I am lying. I did care. But I became accustomed to it. Soon enough the other recruits ceased taunting me. After I was attacked by several of them, and I killed two."

"Were you punished?"

"For that?" Nukurren made the gesture of dismissal; yellow contempt rippled briefly in her mantle. "To the contrary. I was praised by my captain and promoted. And then I devoted myself to becoming a mistress of warfare. I was good at it."

Nukurren fell silent. She refused to speak again that day, for reasons which were not clear, even to her. But on the next day, when Dzhenushkunutushen pressed her, she resumed her story.

"There is not much to tell about the eightyweeks which followed. There were many campaigns, and many battles. I acquired many more scars, but I no longer remember which they were. I was given my freedom after one battle where I fought well, and promoted again. Had I been highclan, or midclan, or even lowclan, I would have been promoted very often. Even though I am ugly, and look stupid, I am not. I always observed things carefully, and learned from them."

"How did you meet Dhowifa?"

"After a time, I was promoted again, and assigned to the Motherguard."

"What is the Motherguard?"

"That is the elite legion which guards the Divine Shell."

"Nukurren was the only clanless helot ever assigned to the Motherguard," interjected Dhowifa. "Ever. She was famous."

"Stop bragging, Dhowifa."

"It's true! I remember the day you arrived. My bondbrothers and I snuck out of the Divine Shell to watch."

"And what did you think?" asked Ludumila.

Dhowifa hesitated. Nukurren made the gesture of amusement. "Don't lie, Dhowifa!"

The little truemale's mantle shimmered with a complex web of colors, which suddenly dissolved into green. "I thought Nukurren was the ugliest gukuy I had ever seen. I was terrified of her. Everyone was, I think."

"Not Ushulubang," said Nukurren.

"No," agreed Dhowifa. "Not her."

The demons stopped abruptly, and stared at the two gukuy riding on the litter. Ludumila hooted a sudden command, and the owoc carrying the litter stopped also.

"You know Ushulubang?" demanded Dzhenushkunutushen.

Ochre uncertainty and confusion rippled across Dhowifa's mantle. As always, Nukurren's remained gray.

"Yes," replied Dhowifa.

Instantly, Ludumila began shouting in the harsh demon language. The entire caravan came to a halt, and within moments the black demon came racing back to the litter. Watching him approach, Nukurren was struck again by the astonishing speed of which the demons were capable.

Once he arrived, a rapid exchange took place in the demons' language. The black demon turned and stared at the gukuy on the litter.

"Explain how you know Ushulubang," he commanded. "Are you Pilgrims of the Way?"

"No, I am not," replied Nukurren immediately. Dhowifa's response was slower in coming. The ochre hues in his mantle were now interlaced with pink apprehension.

"I am not either," said Dhowifa hesitantly. "Not really. But I talked with Ushulubang whenever I could, and she trained me in dukuna."

"What is 'dukuna'?" asked the demon Dzhenushkunutushen. But before Dhowifa could answer, the black demon interrupted with a sudden burst of incomprehensible language. Nukurren could not understand it, but she knew that it was a different language than the one which the demons had used heretofore. Even harsher, and full of sounds which no gukuy could ever hope to reproduce.

Within a short time, all the demons in the caravan were gathered about the litter. After a lengthy exchange in the new language, the black demon began hooting. At once the caravan resumed its progress, but now at a more rapid pace than before. Watching the owoc who were carrying her litter, Nukurren realized that the slow and ungainly creatures were moving at the fastest pace possible for them on such difficult terrain.

"Why are you interested in Ushulubang?" she asked the demon Dzhenushkunutushen.

"Because she is—"

He was interrupted by a few short and sharp words uttered in the new demon language by Ludumila. Dzhenushkunutushen fell silent. After a moment, he said curtly: "I am not to speak of it," and moved away.

Nukurren examined the female demon. She was able, from the experience of the past few days, to recognize some of the variations in the demons' features which distinguished one from the other. By now, the difference in body shape between female and male demons was clear to Nukurren. The demons also varied in size and color.

But there were other differences, as well, which were much less obvious. As with gukuy, these differences were mainly in the face. Gukuy recognized each other primarily from the different configurations of the arm-clusters and the subtle variations in the eye-orbits. Nukurren had already learned to distinguish one demon from another with regard to their eye-orbits. Despite their tiny size, demon eyes were much like gukuy eyes; and the orbits were generically similar, except that the demon orbits seemed made of some hard material beneath the flesh.

Some of the demons—about half of them, Nukurren estimated—had deep orbits. The orbits of the remainder were shallower, it seemed. The female demon Ludumila was one of these. Looking at her, Nukurren now realized that the flatness of her eye-orbits was due to an extension of the flesh coming from that strange feature in the middle of her face—the beak-above-the-true-beak.

"What is that called?" she suddenly asked Ludumila. "That feature which protrudes above your beak?"

It required a bit more of an explanation before the demon understood the question.

"A . . . nosu?" asked Nukurren. Ludumila made the peculiar bobbing motion of her head which Nukurren had come to recognize as the demon gesture of affirmation.

That was the key to discerning one human from another, Nukurren now realized. Ludumila's nosu was shallow and flat, spreading widely across her face. The black demon's nosu did likewise. Whereas—

"Dzhenushkunutushen's nosu is bigger than yours, and it protrudes much farther forward."

Ludumila began barking in the demon manner of laughter.

"We call it 'The Beak,' " she said, and barked again. Nukurren tried to understand the humor involved, but could make no sense of it. After a time, she felt herself growing weaker again and was less and less able to observe anything coherently. She felt very hot and feverish, and her mind began to wander. Disease now held her tightly in its arms.

At some point in the vague meanderings of her thoughts, she recalled Dhowifa's earlier remark. Half-unconsciously, her arms curled in the gesture of amusement.

I remember the first time I saw Dhowifa. I was not terrified of him. But I was apprehensive, and tense. He was very high-clan. Ansha royalty.

She had been standing guard at night, alone, by one of the side entrances to the Divine Shell. It was a shabby entrance, used only by servants. The stones of the arch were crudely cut and undecorated. The area was dim, lit only by a small, poorly-fed glowmoss colony.

It had been Nukurren's usual sentry duty. Not for her the prestigious post of standing guard by the main entrances, in daylight. Not for one as ugly as she, and helot-born.

She had heard a slight sound behind her, and turned. A small shape stood in the entryway. As soon as she had turned, the shape—a young truemale, she saw—scuttled back into the gloom of the hallway beyond.

"Who are you?" she had demanded, but her voice had been soft and, Dhowifa later told her, not unpleasant. After a moment, the truemale had come forward.

"I am Dhowifa," he said. Nukurren recognized him then, one of the Paramount Mother's recently wed husbands. It was very odd for such a one to be in that place, in the middle of the night, but Nukurren had not questioned him. After a moment, she had invited him to come forward, and had spent some time thereafter in casual conversation with Dhowifa.

On that night, the truemale had not explained his presence there. But he would reappear again, on many nights in the eightweeks that followed. After a time, as a strange friendship formed between the royal truemale and the lowborn warrior, Nukurren would learn of the cruelties of the Paramount Mother and the misery of Dhowifa.

By what manner, and by what route, the odd friendship turned into passion, Nukurren could never precisely recall. She could only remember that one night, with the rain thundering down, when the love and ecstasy she had only been able to dream of had finally entered her life. That it was a forbidden love and an unnatural ecstasy had mattered to her not at all.

Many nights of secret and illicit passion had followed, until the night when Dhowifa had crawled to her, only half-conscious, his little body a pulpy mass of bruises from the beating administered by the Paramount Mother. It seemed his love-making had displeased her.

They had left Shakutulubac that same night. Dhowifa had hesitated, in despair of leaving his malebond. But, in the end, he had not been able to bear the thought of returning to the Paramount Mother.

A pursuit had been organized, of course. But Nukurren had gained them a considerable lead by the simple expedient of slaughtering all the guards at the northwest gate of the city. Eight butchered guards could only be the work of a large raiding party from an enemy realm, or a massive conspiracy, or . . . Not for days did the Tympani realize the truth, and by then it was too late.

Remembering now, her mind a blur of fevered chaos, Nukurren finally fell asleep. But even in her sleep, her arms remained curled in the gesture of amusement. The captain of the guard at the northwest gate had often taunted Nukurren for her ugliness and her base birth. She had taunted Nukurren again that night, when Nukurren appeared out of the darkness, and the jibes had been echoed by her guards; until it occurred to them to demand an explanation for Nukurren's presence. Her drawn flail and unharnessed fork had provided the answer, though it was not to their liking.


The harsh sound of demon voices awakened Nukurren. Through her one remaining eye, she saw that night was falling. She was very, very weak; her whole body felt aflame. Still, she managed to look about.

They were high up on the Chiton, now, in a steep-walled canyon. Ahead of them loomed a large, partially-finished wall. A fortification, Nukurren realized, though it was oddly designed, with unusual projections and overhangs.

Those would be good for hurling stingers, she thought. Any gukuy below, trying to force a way through, would find nowhere to hide.

Atop the wall stood several demons, both female and male. A large door in the middle of the fortification, made of many interwoven and lacquered strips of yopo, suddenly swung aside. The litter was carried through the entrance, and the door was swung shut behind them.

That night the caravan rested within the shelter of the wall across the canyon. Fascinated by the demon methods of fortification, Nukurren tried to observe as much as she could. But it was soon dark, and, in any event, she found it difficult to concentrate.

The next morning, she was awakened again by the harsh sound of demons speaking. She recognized the voices by their distinct tones and timber: Dzhenushkunutushen and the black demon. And, occasionally, the female demon Ludumila. The voices were very loud, especially that of Dzhenushkunutushen.

"Are you awake?" whispered Dhowifa. "I'm frightened. I think they're arguing."

Nukurren opened her eye—with some reluctance, for the effort caused much pain to her maimed eye. Before her she saw a fascinating tableau.

The two male demons, one of them as white as the other was black, were standing very close together, face to face. Despite their bizarre appearance, it was instantly obvious to Nukurren that Dhowifa was correct. They were arguing, and, she estimated, arguing very fiercely. The female demon Ludumila, Nukurren thought, was attempting to arbitrate—or, perhaps, simply to keep the argument from erupting too far.

Suddenly, the demon Dzhenushkunutushen gestured toward the litter, and Nukurren realized that they were arguing about her.

"The black one wants to kill us," whispered Dhowifa.

Nukurren made the gesture of tentative doubt. "I don't think so. He is implacable, that is true—"

"His color doesn't mean anything, I keep telling you," interrupted Dhowifa crossly.

"It does not matter. He would be implacable, whatever his color. It is in the nature of the monster. But—I do not believe he is cruel. And there is no reason, now, to kill us. They could have done it right after the battle, or at any time since."

"Then why—" Nukurren silenced her lover with a hiss. She was too engrossed by the interaction among the demons to be distracted.

Suddenly, she understood. The black demon, she had known for days, was the commander. The female demon Ludumila, she suspected, was his lieutenant. But she had been unable, before now, to determine the exact position of the white demon Dzhenushkunutushen.

Yet now, analyzing the exchange between the strangest creatures she had ever encountered, she knew Dzhenushkunutushen's position. And knew him, for all that he was a monster.

He was her. Just so, in times past, had Nukurren confronted an officer in the legions, when an issue had been of such importance as to require that a leader of warriors make a stand. Officers were to be respected and obeyed, of course. But, on occasion, it was also necessary to bring them to heel.

The demon shouting became very loud.

"They're going to start fighting!" hissed Dhowifa with alarm. His mantle rippled pink and red.

"No," said Nukurren firmly. "The black demon is a good officer, I think. And so he will yield."

The black demon made a sudden spreading motion with his limbs. He barked a sharp sound. Dzhenushkunutushen fell silent, though he remained stiff and erect. Very tense, Nukurren thought, interpreting the demon's posture as best she could.

Very tense, but, I think, satisfied.

A moment later, the black demon began barking commands and pointing to various of the demons gathered about. Almost at once, the litter was picked up by four of the demons, including the black demon and Dzhenushkunutushen. Nukurren and Dhowifa suddenly found themselves being carried up the trail at a much more rapid pace than ever before. Soon the fortification was left far behind.

Nukurren was deeply impressed by the rapidity of their travel. She realized that the black demon had selected the four largest demons to carry the litter. All of them, she noted, were male. Still, Nukurren thought that she outweighed any one of the demons, even Dzhenushkunutushen, by a large margin. It would have been difficult for four large gukuy to carry her at a normal walking pace, much less at the astonishing speed with which the demons were climbing the trail.

Two other demons accompanied the party, stick-pedding alongside. One of them was Ludumila. She was the only female demon still present. Ludumila was large for a female demon, taller than most of the males, if not as tall as Dzhenushkunutushen and the black one. But she was less massive, especially in her upper mantle. The female demons, Nukurren concluded, were capable of the same speed and agility as the males, but lacked the sheer strength.

Nukurren was surprised, therefore, some time later, when Ludumila replaced one of the male demons carrying the litter. The transfer took place with only a moment's interruption, and the litter was soon moving along as rapidly as before. As time went on, the demons carrying Nukurren and Dhowifa were regularly replaced by one of those who had been able to rest for a time, unburdened by the litter.

These are the most terrifying warriors who ever walked the Meat of the Clam, she thought. If they are numerous, no army could stand against them. Not even the legions of mighty Ansha.

Soon they reached a crest and entered a plateau. The demons began traveling faster still. Shortly thereafter, Nukurren lapsed into semi-consciousness. Dimly, vaguely, she heard Dhowifa conversing with the demon Ludumila.

Nukurren must rest! She is sick!

Soon. Soon.

She will die if she does not rest!

She will die if we do not get her to (strange human word—a name, Nukurren thought). Soon! That is why we left the owoc behind and are carrying you ourselves. Dzhenush (the shortened name for Dzhenushkunutushen, Nukurren knew; odd; few gukuy used diminutive names) insisted. Short barks—laughter. I thought (again, a strange word—the name of the black demon, perhaps) was going to burst a (unknown phrase). It's not often someone gets in his face like that! Short barks. It's good for him.

A short silence. Then: That's Dzhenush. Even in her fevered state, Nukurren could not miss the affection in the bizarre demon voice.

Such strange creatures, with strange customs. Only among the barbarian tribes do officers mate with common warriors. But I do not think these are barbarians. I do not know what they are. Can demons be civilized? I hope not. No Kiktu barbarian was ever as cruel as Ansha.

But her ability to reason was vanishing, splintered by pain. One last, fleeting thought: The demon Dzhenushkunutushen is a warrior, but not, I think, a common one. Nor was I. Nor was I.

Everything faded into an incomprehensible blur. All that remained was the sense of Dhowifa's little body nestled in her mantle, blessedly cool against the scorching heat of the fever; and the tender stroking of his arms.



Back | Next