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PART III: The Weft

Chapter 14

Long before the battle ended, Kopporu knew the Kiktu were defeated. More than defeated. Crushed.

The outcome would have been certain even if the leader of the left flank, Ototpo, had not led an insane charge at the very beginning of the fray. The charge had shattered against the disciplined ranks of the Utuku. Ototpo herself had been slain, along with most of the main battle leaders of the left flank. A few of the survivors of the charge had attempted to make a stand, but they had not lasted long under the weight of the Utuku counterattack.

From that moment, the Utuku pressed their advantage remorselessly. They did not move quickly, true. Utuku tactics were designed to maximize their strengths—great numbers and rigid discipline. The Utuku warriors shuffled forward, mantle to mantle, grinding down everything before them. There was no room in that press for the clever fork-and-flail work in which the Kiktu excelled. Forks were useless, and in that style of combat the Kiktu were at a disadvantage against the heavily armored and shielded Utuku.

The Utuku ground forward, rolling up the Kiktu from right to left. Under their peds, the fern-like uyi which covered the entire central plain from the ocean to the Pokta Mountains was mashed to pulp. By routing the left wing of the Kiktu at the beginning of the battle, the Utuku insured that their enemy could not escape the trap created by the stupidity of its leaders. The route to possible escape led to the south, away from the Lolopopo swamp. There, in the flat vastness of the Papti Plain, the Kiktu might have eluded their slower-moving enemy. (The plan which Kopporu had tried, and failed, to get adopted by her tribe relied precisely on that vastness and Kiktu mobility for its eventual success.)

But that route was now closed off by the defeat of the left flank. Even had the war leader of the Kiktu been a quick-thinking realist, Giakta could not have marshalled her loosely organized army quickly enough to slip out of the trap that was closing in. The fleeing survivors of the left flank were spreading confusion and dismay among the warriors of the center. Even from a distance, Kopporu could see that the center of the Kiktu host was a swirling mass of chaos.

The Utuku did not fail to close the trap. Their greater numbers allowed their commanders to continually outflank the Kitku without easing up the relentless pressure of their front ranks. Slowly, but surely, the advance elements of the Utuku right curved northeast, until they reached the edge of the Lolopopo. The Kiktu were surrounded. The enemy on three sides; the swamp on the fourth.

The disaster was complete. Moved by a sudden impulse, Kopporu looked to the northeast and gazed at the Chiton. The long, flattish curve of the huge mountain was visible over the tall cycads of the swamp, even at that great distance. The mountain dominated the entire landscape of the northermost reaches of the plain. Mountain of myths and legends. And demons, it was now said.

She looked away. There would be time later, perhaps, to think of the Chiton. For the moment, she must bend every thought to the execution of her secret plan.

In that respect, Kopporu's position was better than she had feared. Better, even, than she had hoped. Through the course of the battle, she had badly bruised the Utuku opposing her. Ironically, in this last battle of the Kiktu, she had been able to impose her tactics to a far greater degree than hitherto. Partly that was because the forces under her command were disproportionately made up of battle groups with young leaders who had been gravitating toward her views for some time. But mostly, it was because the extreme desperation of the moment reined in the exuberant individualism of the Kiktu warriors. They were in a fight to the death, and they knew it. They placed their trust in Kopporu.

She had not failed them. Indeed, had the battlefield consisted solely of her forces and those immediately facing her, the Kiktu would already be celebrating a great victory. Time and again, Kopporu's swift maneuvers—feint, retreat, counterattack—had utterly befuddled the Utuku. She had never made the mistake of crashing head-on into the massed ranks of the enemy. Instead, she had sliced off pieces of the enemy army and destroyed them.

Eventually, the Utuku had withdrawn into a purely defensive formation. Orders had come to the leader of the Utuku left, carried by a courier from the Beak of the Utuku herself: Cease all attacks. Hold the Kiktu on the north against the swamp, until our entire army can be brought to bear.

The flank leader had immediately obeyed, even though she knew that the orders were her death sentence. The Beak of the Utuku was cold and calculating, never hotheaded. But she was also utterly merciless toward failure. She would see to the destruction of the Kiktu, in the surest manner available. Later, in her great command yurt, she would dine on the disgraced leader of her left flank along with the captives.

So it was that Kopporu was given a desperately needed respite in the midst of the battle. She had time, now. Time to summon her remaining battle leaders and explain the necessary course of action. Time, hopefully, to sway them to her side. If not, time to impose her will.

And there was this added, totally unexpected, benefit: in the chaos at the center of the Kiktu forces, many of the young herders assigned to guard the gana had taken it upon themselves to drive the gana toward the right flank, away from the advancing juggernaut. Hundreds of gana were now clustered to the rear of Kopporu's warriors, almost into the swamp itself. From beyond the ganahide walls of her command circle, Kopporu could hear the terrified whistles of the beasts.

She had not expected to salvage any of the tribe's gana. Not many would survive the swamp, true. But perhaps enough.


Within the walls of her command circle, all of the remaining battle leaders were gathered. Aktako was there as well, along with six handpicked warriors. The battle leaders did not wonder at the presence of Aktako and the warriors. A battle leader of Kopporu's status was expected to maintain a personal guard. But they did wonder at the presence of the eight swamp-dwellers. What were disreputable clanless outcasts doing in the midst of Kiktu battle-leaders?

When Kopporu explained, the mantles of the seven battle leaders turned bright orange. Utter astonishment.

The orange she expected. Ochre was inevitable. Pink, even red, would be acceptable. Who would not hesitate or feel fear at her desperate plan?

But it was the blue of rage—say better, outrage—for which she watched vigilantly.

The color first appeared in the mantle of Yaua, as Kopporu had known it would. The old battle leader was fearless, but stupid; set in her ways like a clam.

Kopporu allowed Yaua to vent her indignation. As yet, the color of the remaining battle leaders showed not a trace of blue. But Kopporu was certain that the sentiments being expressed by Yaua were shared, to one extent or another, by all of them. The sentiments would have to be addressed, before further action could be taken.

"We cannot throw ourselves into the center," explained Kopporu patiently. "We would simply compound the chaos. No, worsen it—for the Utuku who are now licking the wounds we gave them would quickly follow. The trap would be complete."

"Your plan will produce the same result," pointed out Gortoku, one of the young battle leaders. "Even more quickly and completely."

"True," responded Kopporu immediately. "But we will not be in the trap."

She rose to her peds. "Understand. Understand. The Utuku victory is inevitable. We can do nothing to prevent it. One question remains, and one only—will all the Kiktu perish in the trap?"

"Treason!" bellowed Yaua. "Treason!"

Kopporu allowed blue rage to flood her own mantle.

"Yes, treason—by those fools who led our people to this disaster. Fools like you."

She paused, quickly scanning the other battle leaders. Five, she thought. Five out of seven. Better than she had expected.

"The penalty for treason is death!" roared Yaua.

"So it is," replied Kopporu. Her mantle flashed black.

Instantly, two of Aktako's warriors slammed the prongs of their forks into the mantle of Yaua. A moment later, the old battle leader was flopped onto her side. Aktako herself delivered the death stroke.

"That one also," commanded Kopporu, pointing at the battle leader Doroto. The murderous scene was repeated.

The five surviving battle leaders were shocked into immobility. Hardened warriors that they were, the utter ruthlessness of Kopporu's actions had stunned them scarlet with terror.

Kopporu noted with satisfaction that Gortoku was the first to bring her emotions under control. She had long thought the young gukuy was the best of the new battle leaders.

Her satisfaction deepened to pleasure at Gortoku's next words.

"Why not me?" asked Gortoku. Truly, a valiant youth.

"Have I ever punished a warrior for questioning me?" demanded Kopporu. "Even once?"

The red was rapidly fading from the mantles of all five battle leaders. Gortoku's was now pure gray.

The five young leaders looked at each other. Almost as one, their arms curled into the gesture of negation.

"No. Nor will I ever in the future. I am neither all-wise nor all-seeing. A battle leader who does not listen to the opinions of her subordinates is a fool."

The black in her mantle was still as hard as obsidian.

"But we do not have time for a long and leisurely discussion. There is only this much that remains to be said. I do not know what the future will bring us. It is a desperate course we take. But until we find our way to some place of safety, I will rule what remains of our tribe with a palp of bronze. You may always question my decisions. But once I have given a command, it must be instantly obeyed. To do otherwise is treason."

She did not feel it necessary to point to the gutted corpses of Yaua and Doroto.

"The penalty for which is known."

Again, she noted, it was Gortoku who took the initiative.

"What are your commands?"

"Ropou will lead her group in a charge at the Utuku. But before reaching their ranks, she will call a retreat."

She looked at the battle leader.

"Do you understand?"

Ropou made the gesture of affirmation.

"The Utuku will think we are trying to trick them into another ambush." The young battle leaders whistled agreement. Three times that day, Kopporu had mangled overeager detachments of the Utuku by using that very tactic. Eventually, the Utuku had refused to be drawn into a charge.

"Under cover of Ropou's maneuver, the remaining battle groups will retreat into the swamp. Ufta's group will go first, taking the gana with them."

"The gana will panic," complained Ufta. "They will not enter the swamp."

Kopporu stared at her. She had almost ordered the execution of Ufta as well. Perhaps she should have.

Something of her thoughts must have shown, for Ufta suddenly announced that she would see to the task. At once.

Kopporu ordered one of the swamp-dwellers to accompany Ufta, to provide her with a guide once her group entered the swamp. The other battle leaders were likewise provided with guides. She then ordered the five battle leaders to their posts, after issuing one final command.

"In the event of my death, Gortoku will assume leadership of the tribe."

"What's left of the tribe," said Ufta softly.

"No." The battle leaders stared at Aktako, surprised. Despite her personal relationship with Kopporu, the old veteran was always a stickler for protocol. She never spoke at the meetings of the battle leaders.

Aktako's own mantle was as black as Kopporu's.

"Ufta still does not understand," said Aktako harshly. "This is the tribe. From this moment forward, there are no other Kiktu."

The old warrior waved a palp toward the south. In the distance, the clash of flails and forks could be heard. But above it, swelling, they could hear the shrieks of the doomed. The Utuku cutters had already started their work, in anticipation of the great victory feast.

Aktako made the gesture of negation.

"Those are no longer Kitku. They are meat for the conquerors."


As soon as the battle leaders left the command circle, Kopporu summoned the remaining swamp-dweller to her side. The swamp-dweller was called O-doddo-ua, and she was what passed for a leader among the swamp dwellers. Her name seemed strange to Kopporu's ear, but she knew it was a common one among the helots in the Oukasho Prevalate. O-doddo-ua, like most of the swamp-dwellers, was an escapee from the southern prevalates. They had chosen the wretched and dangerous life of the swamp in preference to a life of ceaseless toil and slavery. There were many Kiktu warriors—the great majority, in truth—who despised the swamp-dwellers for that choice. Kopporu admired them for it.

But whether they despised them or not, all the Kiktu would now be dependent on the swamp-dwellers. The swamp was a feared place, unclean; essentially unknown to the Kiktu. Their survival would depend on the knowledge of the outcasts.

"Do you have any questions, O-doddo-ua?"

The swamp-dweller hesitated. There were traces of pink in the ochre of her mantle, Kopporu noted. Not with surprise, except, perhaps, at the absence of red. O-doddo-ua had known, abstractly, that Kopporu was ruthless in her approach to reality. But abstract knowledge is one thing; gutted bodies are another.

"You are afraid of what I will do to you, once you have served us," stated Kopporu.

A sudden ripple of ochre washed over the swamp-dweller's mantle, followed by the gesture of affirmation.

"I am not cruel, O-doddo-ua. Treacherous only when I need to be. I promised that we would reward you if you guided us through the swamp. The promise will be kept."

O-doddo-ua hesitated; then spoke softly, in the slurring accent of the southerners.

"We have not agreed on the reward."

"True. I offered you five wires of bronze. I can now promise you a few gana, as well. But that is all." Kopporu allowed a brief ripple of brown into her mantle. "The Kiktu will have nothing more to give. We are now a poor tribe ourselves."

"Not true, battle leader. You are rich in what the swamp-dwellers treasure most. Richer now, I think, than ever."

"Indeed? What is that?"

"Knowledge of survival, and its needs." To Kopporu's surprise, the swamp-dweller's mantle turned black.

"Our reward will be adoption into your tribe. No, more. Into your own clan, battle leader Kopporu."

Despite her iron self-control, Kopporu was unable to prevent her mantle from glowing bright orange. Not often, since she was a child, had Kopporu been so thoroughly astonished.


"You heard. Those are our terms, battle leader. We have discussed it amongst ourselves, and decided."


"We know the swamp, battle leader, but we do not love it. Not at all. We are tired of being outcasts. And we have long since abandoned the foolish notions of civilization. It would be good to have a place in the world. In the greatest clan of its greatest tribe."

Kopporu whistled bitter amusement. "Greatest tribe? Its greatest clan? Are you blind, O-doddo-ua? The Kiktu are no longer the world's greatest tribe, if we ever were. By tomorrow we will be not much more than outcasts and swamp dwellers ourselves."

O-doddo-ua said nothing; but the black mantle never lightened its shade.

After a moment, Kopporu made the gesture of acceptance.

"So be it, if that is your wish. But, understand this, O-doddo-ua: the decision is not mine to make. I am a battle leader only. You and your people cannot be adopted into the Kiktu without the consent of the entire tribe, in full tribal assembly. My clan is a small one, and the clan leaders are not—"

She stopped abruptly. O-doddo-ua whistled.

"Are not alive," she finished the thought. O-doddo-ua waved her palp to the south. "Or not much longer. All the clan leaders are gathered in the center, with the mothers. You will be the new clan leader, Kopporu. And your clan will now be the greatest of the Kiktu."

"Still . . ." She made the gesture of resignation. "I will do what I can, O-doddo-ua. The decision must still be made by the tribe as a whole. I will speak for you, that I can promise. But that may not be of any use. I myself will have to stand trial, at the next assembly. For treason and murder. My words may harm your cause more than they help it."

"We will take our chances. By then, much will have changed. The warriors will be shocked by your actions, once they understand what has happened here. Appalled, even. But by then, they will have spent time in the swamp."


"So—the swamp has a way of teaching one to distinguish what is important from what is frivolous. And they will no longer despise we swamp-dwellers."

O-doddo-ua turned away.

"You will see, battle leader. You will see."


No sooner had O-doddo-ua left the command circle than Lukpudo entered. The battle leader of the Opoktu was bearing a new wound. But it was a slight wound, and would soon be lost in the welter of other scars which crisscrossed her mantle.

Kopporu watched Lukpudo approach with a mixture of fondness and deep regret. Fondness, for her trust in the Opoktu had not been mislaid—the small tribe had fought well and valiantly. Deep regret, for their loyalty was now to be repaid by treachery. Kopporu would attempt, at the last moment, to keep a way open for the Opoktu to follow her into the swamp, should they so choose. But she had not confided in them, and she knew that they would be too confused to act quickly enough.

She noticed that Lukpudo gave only the briefest glance at the bodies of the two murdered battle leaders as she approached. Lukpudo's indifference puzzled her. It was obvious the two battle leaders had been slain here, not on the battlefield.

The mystery was resolved at once, and Kopporu found herself astonished for the second time that day.

"When do we make our retreat into the swamp?" asked Lukpudo.

The Opoktu battle leader whistled amusement at Kopporu's orange.

"The Kiktu leaders may be stupid, Kopporu, but our clan leaders are most assuredly not. It's one of the advantages, you know, to being a small tribe. You have to be smarter."

"You knew?"

Another whistle.

"Not exactly. We have been planning the same maneuver ourselves. I almost raised the subject with you, once. But you're such an upright sort that I decided it best not to. I could not afford, you understand, to be denounced. But I began suspecting what you were up to when I saw the swamp-dwellers you were collecting around. There could only be one logical explanation for their presence."

Lukpudo made the gesture of derision, coupled with a swift yellow ripple across her mantle. The combination expressed exactly the same sentiments that a human would express with a snort.

"Leaving aside that ridiculous spawn's tale you were spreading about the danger of an Utuku sweep through the swamp. So I started watching you closely. You—and Aktako. I knew that if you were planning something, she would be in the thick of it. When I saw the hand-picked flails she assembled, I knew. You have never been one of those battle leaders who wants to be surrounded by a mob of personal guards. So why now? And why those guards?—all of whom I recognized as one of Aktako's old cronies? Who may no longer be the swiftest warriors on the field, but who are certainly the most deadly.

"From then on, I kept an eye on your command circle. Since the battle started I've had one of my warriors watching, to tell me the moment you summoned your battle leaders."

Lukpudo turned and gazed back at the corpses.

"Two only?" she asked. "I expected to see Ufta's body lying there as well."

"She almost was. But—I was not sure. And I have no taste for murder."

"You may regret the decision. Ufta is much smarter than Doroto was. Certainly than Yaua. But I do not think she has their courage." A quick flash of brown/green regret swept across Lukpudo's mantle. "They were valiant gukuy. But valor is no longer enough, in this new and terrible world."

She turned back to Kopporu. "Time presses, battle leader. For the duration of this struggle, the Opoktu will remain under your command."

"And after?"

Lukpudo whistled. "After? Why worry about that now, Kopporu? There may be no 'after.' The swamp, by all reports, is not much less terrible than the Utuku. If at all. But I would rather be eaten by snails than cannibals."

Another whistle.

"And besides, the future is not entirely grim for the Opoktu. There is this much to look forward to—we will no longer be the smallest tribe in the world."

"You have never been small in my eyes, Lukpudo."

For a brief moment, the battle leader of the Opoktu allowed deep green to suffuse her mantle.

"I know, Kopporu. We have always loved you for it."

The green vanished, replaced by black.

"What are your commands?"


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