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Chapter 16

Later, she herself remembered almost nothing of the battle that followed. Except, oddly, the role of her male companions. Perhaps it was because of the oddity of this new thing which had come into her life. Whatever the reason, there was some detached part of her mind which noted (with great surprise) that the childcluster was quite effective in protecting her from Utuku pipers.

True, the Utuku pipers were at a great disadvantage—squeezed, as they were, into a struggling mass of warriors. Still, there were many who managed to free themselves enough to raise blowpipe to siphon. But few of them were able to fire an effective shot, for they were almost instantly the target of a volley of small darts blown from the malebond riding high above the battle, atop Guo's cowl. It was the eumale, Guo noted, who always called the command for a target.

True, none of the darts carried the same force as a dart blown from a female piper. But her male preconsorts were amazingly accurate in their aim—and there were always six darts in that counter-volley. Guo saw more than one Utuku piper hoot with agony, its eyes a sudden ruin.

Nevertheless, she was struck by several darts. Two of them caused painful wounds within her mantle. But her eyes were never hit—and Guo, fighting without a shield, had fully expected to be blind within a few minutes. She had not cared, for she thought it was to be her death battle.

For one of the males atop her cowl, it was. She glimpsed an Utuku dart sailing above her cowl and heard a sudden hoot of pain. Thereafter, there were only five darts in the counter-volleys.

One of her unknown future husbands, she realized, was dead or badly injured.

Of the rest of that battle, Guo remembered nothing to the day of her death. She heard about it, of course, many times. Within not so many years, the Battle of the Clearing would become a stock in trade of chantresses across half a continent. They would tell, in traditional cadence and meter, of the day the horrible Utuku were hammered into a mass of slugflesh, until their bodies could not be distinguished from the muck of the swamp. The chantresses would even claim that, to this day, the blood of the Utuku still seeps from the soil of that clearing. Guo's Clearing, as they called it. Or, simply: the Crushing Place.

(It was not true, of course. The scavengers of the swamp are extraordinarily efficient. Within a few eightdays, there was little trace of the Utuku disaster in the clearing, beyond a few scraps of utterly inedible weapons and armor. But who would ever go into the swamp to see for themselves? The chantresses continued the tale, and were never challenged.)


When the signal came to disengage, Guo did not hear it. Only the insistent rapping on her cowl by her malecluster finally brought her back to consciousness from the mists of her battle fury.

"We have been ordered to withdraw," said the eumale.

Guo stared at the few Utuku survivors who were still in the clearing. All of them were maimed and crippled. She yearned to end their suffering, and then charge forth into the plain itself to continue the slaughter. But Kopporu's stern discipline restrained her. She turned and entered the cycads to the north.

Now that the battle was over, exhaustion threatened to overcome her. Exhaustion, and misery. After hours, the kuoptu which had flooded her mantle faded, replaced by brown grief. The same color, she noted dully, dappled the mantles of all the warriors within eyesight. The Kiktu had inflicted a terrible defeat upon the Utuku in the clearing. But they knew that, even at that moment, their tribe was being butchered and enslaved on the plain to the south.

Guo was so tired that she did not even wonder where she was going. At first, her vague supposition was that Kopporu was leading them to the east, to a part of the swamp from which they could issue forth in a hopeless attempt to rescue the tribe's mothers.

She held that thought for some time. It was difficult to determine direction in the gloom beneath the overhanging cycads. And there were more than enough dangers in the swamp to keep her mind concentrated on the few goa ahead of her. Patches of bottomless mud; clumps of dangerous-looking plants, their purple spines glistening with what might well be poison; predators—small predators, for the large ones had fled the sound of battle—but even the small predators of the swamp could be deadly: she saw the bodies of several gana, and one warrior, covered with venomous slugs and snails.

Eventually, it dawned on her that they were heading north, not east. North-ward, she thought—for the actual route they were following seemed to twist and turn in a bewildering manner. Had she and her flankers not been guided by a swamp-dweller, they would have soon become hopelessly lost. But, over time, even to her weary mind, it was clear that they were moving farther and farther away from the battlefield to the south.

Around her, unseen because of the constant screen of cycads, giant ferns, and other vegetation whose name she did not know, she could hear the movement of other files of warriors. Kopporu, she realized, had broken the flank into small groups which, guided by swamp dwellers, could make reasonably rapid progress through the narrow passageways in the swamp. Much more rapid, certainly, than the rigidly organized Utuku—who would not, in any event, soon enter the swamp. Not after the terrible slaughter which Kopporu had inflicted on their left flank.

Occasionally, on the path behind her, Guo saw swamp-dwellers dragging vegetation across the trail. Confusing their trail, so that by the time the Utuku did enter the swamp in pursuit, it would be difficult to determine the exact direction in which the Kiktu survivors—

—had fled.

She knew, then. Understanding came to her in a flash. Everything fell into place. Kopporu's strange maneuvers; the words and actions of the Great Mother's attendant; and of the Great Mother herself.

Kopporu has betrayed the tribe.

That thought had no sooner came to her, however, that the simultaneous memory of the Great Mother's actions drove it out of her mind.

One of my—husbands—is hurt. I forgot all about them.

She stopped abruptly. A sharp pang of guilt.

"One of you is hurt. I'm sorry—I was so tired. I—forgot."

A soft voice came down from the cowl above. By its timbre, Guo recognized it as the voice of the eumale.

"No. None of us is hurt. Move on. We don't have time to stop now."

After a moment's hesitation, she stopped and laid down her maces. Then she reached up and grasped her cowl with her palps.

"There are dangerous things in this swamp. Many of them are poisonous, and even the smaller snails are almost as big as you. Come down, and—inside me."

A moment later, she felt the small bodies of the males rapidly moving down her tentacles. The last were the eumale and one of the truemales. Between them, they were bearing the body of another member of the bond.

"You said none of you were hurt!"

"He is not hurt," came the reply from the truemale. An exquisitely subtle weave of green love and brown misery rippled across his mantle. "Abka is dead. For long now—he was killed in the battle in the clearing."

"Move on," repeated the eumale. "There is nothing we can do for him now. And we cannot hold up the tribe."

Mention of the tribe brought the thought of Kopporu's treason back, in a rush. Guo set her huge body underway again, consumed with a kaleidoscopic welter of thoughts and emotions. Vaguely, she was aware of the fleeting ripples of color in her mantle. Every color: blue, red, ochre, yellow—yes, and green. She had no doubt as to Kopporu's motives. But treason was still treason. She was now—or would become, at the future ceremony—the Great Mother of what was left of the Kiktu. The tribe would want to hear her voice at Kopporu's—trial.

What would she say? What course of action propose?

Or even—the thought came to her unbidden—command?

She heard faint whispers among the males huddled within her mantle cavity, but paid no attention. Until, moments later, she felt the stroking of a multitude of small arms along the great muscles of her rearhead.

The strokes brought sudden relaxation. And then, almost simultaneously, embarrassment and anxiety.

No male had ever entered her cavity before, much less stroked her. True, their arms were far away from the—organs—at the very rear of her cavity, but still—

"Stop that!"

The strokes ceased. Instantly, the eumale spoke sharply and the stroking resumed. A moment later, the small figure of the eumale and the truemale who had assisted him in carrying Abka's body appeared alongside her huge right eye. (Julius had noted, and been amazed by, the capacity of owoc and gukuy to focus their eyes at incredibly short ranges. Guo was staring at her preconsorts at a distance which a human would have measured in centimeters.)

"You are now the Great Mother of the tribe," said the eumale firmly. "And you are obviously confused and distraught. Over the state of the tribe, of course, but also over what to do about Kopporu. The tribe cannot afford your thoughts to be a mess. It will be part of our duty as your consorts to relieve your tension, so that you can think clearly. Don't be a silly spawn."

Guo couldn't prevent a hoot of surprise. At the impudence of the eumale, to some degree. But more at his uncanny perception of her thoughts.

"How did—"

The eumale whistled. "What else would you be confused about?"

Guo fell silent. The stroking continued, and, after a while, she admitted that it was quite relaxing. Very pleasureable, in fact. But from that train of thought her mind fled quickly.

The eumale and the other male did not leave their perch on her mantlerim. Guo kept her eyes on the path ahead, for the most part. But, now and then, her great right eye would swivel and examine her two new companions. They ignored these peeks, in the excessively dignified manner of youth. They were, Guo realized, no older than she. Still some time away from reaching sexual maturity.

(The thought was, simultaneously, the source of relief, anxiety, regret and vast curiosity.)

"What are your names?" she asked suddenly. "I am Guo, of the clan of—"

The eumale whistled. "We know who you are! Everyone does. I am Woddulakotat. This is Yurra. He is probably going to be our alpha." A quick, incredibly subtle network of green and brown. "Almost certainly. We hadn't decided yet, because Abka was also being considered. But now that Abka is dead—"

He fell silent. The green and brown shimmer on his mantle and Yurra's deepened and glowed. They were lost in grief for their bondmale.

Guo knew little of the complex workings of male society, beyond the simple basics which every gukuy in the tribe knew. Less, probably, than any infanta her age, for she had bent all her thoughts to the ways of the warriors. Males, she knew, bonded together in small groups when they were new-born spawn—the only way they could fend off the predatory attentions of the much larger female spawn.

Once made, those bonds were lifelong and deep. The males of a bond would marry a mother as a cluster. Males had few rights, in Kiktu society; but those which they had, they guarded jealously. The most precious of those rights was the cluster's control over which male would copulate at any given time with the mother. Mothers, it was said, usually had their preferences in sexual partners—but the mothers, normally dominant in their relationship with their husbands, had to accept whichever male had been selected for the moment by the bond. The alpha male would, as a rule, obtain more than his share of couplings—but not too much more, lest he be deposed by his co-husbands.

The malebond's rights in this matter were never challenged. The rights held true even when—as was the custom among the Kiktu and most of the tribes of the plains—visiting mothers exchanged a sexual partner with each other for a night. The choice of the partner to be sent into the mantle of the visiting mother was entirely the prerogative of the mothers' respective husband-clusters. From what Guo had heard (in whispers among infanta), it was a common punishment which males of a bond visited on those of its members who had fallen afoul of the bond's good will—to be dispatched into the mantle of an especially disliked visiting mother; there to labor through the night to satisfy an old, nasty, demanding mother.

Woddulakotat's strange name was normal for a eumale. The oddly truncated ending of the name signified his lack of sexual organs, his incompletion. (Normally, all Kiktu names—almost all words in their language, in fact—ended in vowels.) The length of the name, on the other hand, signified that the being's soul made up for his lack in other ways. The utter misery of a eumale's life, which was the norm in most gukuy societies, was not allowed among the Kiktu. True, the life of a eumale was sharply circumscribed by social custom—even more sharply than those of truemales. But within those limits, eumales were accorded a place of dignity and respect. More often than not, they assumed a position of leadership within the malebonds, along with the alpha husband.

Other peoples, Guo was dimly aware, derided the Kiktu for their coddling of eumales. The Kiktu ignored the derision, since it was (very) rarely expressed aloud; and because they considered the habits of other peoples little better than savagery.

Guo's thoughts began to turn again to the question of Kopporu's conduct, but she pushed it aside. She was much too tired to deal with that now. From what little she could see of the Mother-of-Pearl through the canopy of cycad branches, it was almost nightfall. Soon, she was certain, the leaders would order a rest for the night. On the morrow, when her brain was clear, she would ponder the problem of Kopporu. For now—she had new realities to deal with.

"You were very good in the battle," she said suddenly. The brown in the mantles of her two consorts faded slightly. "I didn't realize males could pipe so well."

The truemale—Yurra—whistled derisively. Delicate yellow traceries formed on Woddulakotat's mantle.

"They can't," announced the eumale. "The silly old farts wouldn't know what to do with their pipes if their lives depended on it."

Sudden brown flooded his little mantle.

"Which it did," he said sadly. "I shouldn't make fun of them. At the end, all the maleclusters took positions to defend their mates, pipes in arms. Not that it would do any good, of course, even if they knew how to use them. But not a one failed in his duty."

"We practiced," added Yurra. "For many, many eightdays. It was Abka's idea. He said that if we became accurate enough, and all fired at once at the same target, that we could make up for our weak siphons."

"He was right," said Guo firmly. "I think you kept me from being blinded."

"You fought without a shield, with two maces," said Woddulakotat admiringly. "You were truly awesome." Yurra hooted vigorous agreement.

For a moment, the gigantic mother and her two consorts-to-be gazed at each other. Then, simultaneously, tinges of green began to flicker in their mantles.

Perhaps it will not be so bad, after all, being a mother.

The thought was still too new and unsettling. For the males as well, it seemed, judging from the speed with which those first, tentative flickers of green disappeared.

"If you intend to continue fighting in this crazy manner," said Yurra suddenly, "we should give some thought to making a kind of shield for your cowl. So that we can concentrate on piping, instead of dodging darts."

Guo was relieved, herself, at the change of subject.

"Good idea. I'll talk to my flankers about it."

The three of them began discussing the design and construction of the shield. Anchoring it, of course, was no problem—the thick, hard tissue of Guo's cowl made a perfect location for attaching a shield. The problem was in the design. More like a visor than a shield, it would have to be—so that the males atop her cowl, while protected, would still have gaps through which to pipe.

Shortly thereafter, the signal was passed down from somewhere ahead: Make camp where you can for the night. We depart at first light tomorrow.

Guo looked around. They were in a place where the path broadened slightly. To one side was a large mound of moss. One of Guo's flankers inspected the mound and announced that it was (relatively) free of pests. Guo and her flankers moved onto the mound. She noticed the apprehensive glances which her flankers cast about in the gloom. It was almost dark. The swamp was horrid enough in daylight. What monsters crept within it during the dark?

She commanded them to gather closely around her bulk—atop her mantle, even, as many as could fit. The flankers quickly agreed on a system of rotating guards. (So, Guo noticed with admiration, did the males of her cluster.) Then, feeling reassured by the proximity of Guo's great muscles, the flankers not on watch fell quickly asleep. No large predator would likely approach such a formidable creature as Guo, even in the dark. If they did, the watch would sound the alarm, and whatever predator might lurk in the swamp would soon learn the bitter lesson which Guo had taught, that very day, to the Utuku. Even in sleep, the great battlemother did not relinguish her grip on the maces.

Guo's last memory, before she fell asleep, was a faint whisper from Woddulakotat.

"Tomorrow, Guo, we will talk about Kopporu, and what you must do. But think on this, as you drift into sleep. I was there, at the end, with the Great Mother. My bondmates and I had taken position on her cowl, alongside her own cluster, for we knew that her husbands would be useless. We saw Kopporu's retreat, at the same time as the Great Mother.

"She did not hesitate, Guo. Not for a moment. She commanded an attendant, and gave her the shell; and ordered us onto the attendant. Then she gave the attendant the message for you, and bade her leave.

"I looked back, Guo, at the Great Mother. It was my last sight of her. Her mantle was glowing like the Mother-of-Pearl itself in midday. One color, Guo—one color alone. The deepest green I have ever seen."


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