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Chapter 21

In the days after the shocking defeat which the huge new gukuy had delivered to Joseph and his lieutenants, Indira found herself, much against her natural inclination, visiting the training field. She said nothing to anyone, simply watched as the new arrival—Nukurren—began showing the human warriors the Utuku methods of combat.

On the second day of the new training regimen, Ushulubang arrived. She was accompanied by Dhowifa, riding in her mantle cavity, and a large number of Pilgrims. Indira immediately knew, by some subtlety in their bearing, that these Pilgrims were former warriors. They were carrying reed-bundles laden with unusually designed weapons, including shields. From descriptions she had heard, Indira realized that these were replicas of Utuku weapons. After a brief consultation between Ushulubang and Nukurren, the Pilgrims donned the Utuku armament and began acting as the mock opponent for the human platoons.

Ushulubang then came to Indira's side. With Ushulubang was one of the Pilgrim warriors, older than the others. Although Indira could not interpret specifically the clan carvings on her cowl (which had all the arcane intricacies of medieval heraldry), Indira was sure that this new gukuy was of some high-ranked Ansha clan.

Ushulubang immediately confirmed her guess.

"Inudira, this is Ghodha. She is a new Pilgrim. Until our flight from Shakutulubac, she was a high commander in the Ansha legions. She is the most experienced war leader amongst the Pilgrims."

Ghodha made the gesture of respect. More properly, since the gesture of respect was generic, she made that specific version of the gesture of respect which signified respect by a high subordinate of one realm toward the august ruler of another.

In return, Indira bowed. Her bow contained none of the subtleties of Ghodha's gesture, however. Indira had realized that the humans would have to develop appropriate gestures with which to respond to gukuy, and so she had instituted the bow. The bow given to gukuy as a gesture of respect, however, was different from the one given to the owoc at the time of feeding. Much shallower—closer to an exaggerated nod than a deep bow. And she had insisted that there be no gradations in the bow.

But, as she had known would happen, the gradations were creeping in regardless. And she had immediately noted the different gesture which Jens Knudsen was using toward Nukurren, and which was almost immediately adopted by the other human warriors. The fact that the gesture resembled, in its outward appearance, the humble hand-clasping of a medieval monk toward an abbot did not fool her for a moment.

Within a generation, she thought wearily, we'll be a proper bunch of samurai and mandarins.

"You are distressed, Inudira," commented Ushulubang. "May I ask why?"

Indira stared. She had already come to recognize that Ushulubang was easily the most intelligent person—human or gukuy—that Indira had ever met in her life. But she was still astonished by the old sage's uncanny ability to interpret subtle nuances of human body language.

"I—it is difficult to explain."

Ushulubang gestured toward the training field.

"Would it ease your spirit if we desisted from this action?"

Indira immediately shook her head. "No, no. You will be a big help for my—children. I should have thought of it myself."

Then why didn't you? she asked herself. The idea was obvious.

But she knew the answer. Because I cannot bear the future I can see—no matter where I look.

"It is what will come of this that disturbs you," said Ushulubang.

Indira nodded.

"I believe I understand. Some day we must speak on this matter, Inudira."

Again, she nodded. But her nod contained, in some subtle way, the implication of hopeless resignation; and she knew the sage recognized it.

She tried to shake off the black mood.

"What is your opinion?" she asked the war leader Ghodha, pointing to the training field.

Ghodha hesitated.

"I would prefer to reserve my opinion, for the moment. I am not familiar with the tactical methods and abilities of dem—ummun."

Indira turned and gazed back onto the training field. By now, the human platoons were fully engaged in maneuvers with the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were arrayed in a tightly knit formation. In essence, it was a phalanx. But Indira saw that the phalanx was much shallower in depth than the formations of the ancient Greeks and Macedonians. The difference, of course, was due to the weapons involved. The many-ranked phalanxes of Hellenic warriors had been designed to take advantage of the great reach of their long spears and pikes. The Utuku, using flails, were limited to a three-deep formation.

"Is that how the Utuku fight?" she asked Ghodha.

"Yes. It is very crude and primitive, and allows for no subtlety of maneuvers. But if the discipline is sufficient—and Utuku discipline is like bronze—then their—" Ghodha hesitated. "I do not know the Enagulishuc word. The Utuku call this formation a kabu buxt. We Ansha call it arrut kudh pakta."

Arrut kudh pakta. Indira made the translation. Crest of the shell, essentially.

"We call it a phalanx," she said.

"Falanuksh," repeated Ghodha. "With their great numbers, and discipline, the Utuku can be a terrible foe. Many armies have broken against them."

A long silence ensued. For the next four hours, Indira watched as the young human leaders, consulting frequently with Nukurren, began changing and adapting their tactics. They were fumbling, at first; grew more assured as time went by. But still, Indira knew, they were groping for answers.

The voice of Ghodha interrupted her thoughts.

"You are fortunate to have Nukurren. She was the greatest warrior of the Anshac legions."

Indira turned and looked at the Pilgrim war leader.

"I did not realize you knew her."

Ghodha made the gesture of negation.

"I did not really know her, Inudira." A faint ochre ripple, with a hint of brown. "The caste divisions in Ansha are rigid. I was high caste—not Ansha, like Ushulubang or Rottu, but very high. Nukurren belonged to no caste, not even a low one. She was born into a helot slave pool. Clanless and outcast." Another ripple, the brown now predominant. "As such, and despite her incredible prowess, she was despised by such as—myself. In my former time, as a high commander."

Ghodha paused, took a deep breath. (In this, humans and gukuy were quite alike—a thing difficult to say was usually prefaced by a full intake of oxygen.) The brown ripples spread and suffused her entire mantle. That shade of brown which signified remorse.

"All my life, before I decided to adopt the Way and follow Ushulubang, I have been trained in arrogance. It comes very easily to me. I have tried to combat it, but it is often difficult. I shall try harder in the future. I will not always succeed, I fear, but I will try."

Indira began to speak, but was interrupted by Dhowifa. The little male's voice was even softer than usual.

"Nukurren thought you were the best of the legions' high commanders," he said.

An orange ripple broke up the brown of Ghodha's mantle.

"It's true," added Dhowifa. "She told me several times." The quick, complex wash of ochre/pink/azure which suddenly colored the little male's mantle was exquisite in its subtlety. Indira was not certain, but she thought it was a brilliant emotional exhibition of diffident apology, leavened by humor (no, not humor—good feeling).

"Actually, she thought the best tactical commander was Ashurruk."

"Of course!" exclaimed Ghodha. "Ashurruk was superb on the battlefield."

"But she thought you were the best thinker. The best—I can't remember the word, I'm not a warrior—the best—"

"Strategist?" asked Ghodha.

A lightning-quick ripple of greenish color. "That's the word!" said Dhowifa.

Ghodha turned and gazed down at the training field.

"So." A whistle. "I must apologize to her."

"Oh, you needn't," said Dhowifa. "Nukurren was never offended by you."

"Perhaps not," replied Ghodha. The former Ansha commander's mantle was suddenly replaced by a dull, matte black. (Stolid determination, Indira knew, closely related to the ebony sheen of implacable purpose.) "I hope not. But my offense is much deeper. Until this very moment, I had never realized that common warriors thought about their commanders. Assessed them, even, much as commanders assess their troops." A short silence; then, a ripple of yellow contempt. "As if commanders are the only ones who think. As if warriors are but brainless beasts."

Indira felt a sudden wave of immense affection for Ghodha sweep over her. In that one moment, she felt a deep regret that she had no way of showing her feelings on her skin as could a gukuy.

She was born into an Anshac upper caste, and trained as a high commander of the legions. For such as she haughtiness and condescension and insult are as natural as breathing. Yet only such a one who also possessed a great soul would have left it all to follow a despised and outlawed sage, for no other reason than devotion to some higher purpose.

She turned away and gazed back onto the training field. The tactics which the young human leaders were developing, working with Nukurren, were beginning to crystallize. But it was also obvious to Indira that they were still hesitant, still uncertain, still unsure of themselves.

She watched as Jens Knudsen, passing by Nukurren during a pause in the action, casually stroked the huge warrior's scarred mantle. She watched as Ludmilla exchanged banter with the outcaste veteran. She watched as Joseph stood by the despised pervert, the former helot, the soulless monster whose mantle never showed any color; stood by her, deep in conversation, his brow furrowed with thought.

Young humans, barely beyond childhood, of every color; allied to a soulless monster whose mantle never showed any color; desperately seeking to forge an instrument which could stave off destruction.

And doing very well, thought Indira, given their handicaps. They are almost there. They need only the finishing touch. And, most of all, the confidence that they are right. The confidence which the Mother of Demons could give them. The Mother of Demons, who knows the secrets.

There are no secrets! she heard her own voice shrieking. But it was a lie.

This secret I do know. It was discovered long ago, in another time, on another planet.

A vivid image flashed through her mind, the superimposed vision of a dark forest in Poland, and the Utuku defeated. No, more than defeated. Shattered, slaughtered, butchered. Their blood soaking the needles of pine trees which never existed on Ishtar; their entrails strewn beneath the branches of an alien growth. Death and destruction in a demon forest.

At that moment, Indira almost spoke. Almost stepped forward and went onto the training field.

But other visions came, and paralyzed her. Vision after vision after vision.

Yes, I know the secret. And all the secrets which come with it.

She saw the horsetail standards of the Mongol tumens, shivering with triumph in the forest. And the pitiless faces of the horsemen and their generals. And the cities like hecatombs. And the peasant woman lying in the doorway of the wretched hovel in which she had toiled her life; her short life, now ending, as she lay there, naked, violated, bleeding to death; her last sight the disemboweled bodies of her children. Lives which had no meaning to the warriors who rode away, toward new triumphs, beyond the brief pleasure they had taken from ending them. But lives which had been as precious to their victims as the life of the Great Khan had been to him, in his grandeur at Qarakorum.

Indira turned and walked away. Her steps were quick, very quick, almost running; the pace of a mother abandoning her children. She was glad, then, that she had no way of showing her feelings as could a gukuy. For her skin would have fairly glowed with brown misery—that particular shade of brown which signified guilt.

* * *

As soon as she left, Joseph and his lieutenants broke off the exercises and trotted over to Ushulubang. Jens Knudsen followed, after a brief exchange of words with Nukurren. Soon thereafter, all the human warriors and gukuy Pilgrims came as well, until the old sage was surrounded by a silent crowd. Only Nukurren remained behind, standing alone on the training field.

Ushulubang said nothing, until Joseph spoke in a voice filled with youthful anguish.

"Why will she not tell us?" he demanded.

"How to defeat the Utuku?" asked the sage mildly. Joseph nodded.

"Maybe she doesn't know," said Jens.

Ushulubang made the gesture of negation. "She knows. It is quite obvious."

Joseph's face was filled with fury. His body almost shook with rage.

"Then why will she not speak?"

Ushulubang's mantle flashed blue/black—the color of furious condemnation. The color of execution.

"Be silent, spawn!" bellowed the sage. The young humans stepped back, astonished. They had never seen Ushulubang in this state. The Pilgrims froze, their mantles flashing red fear. They, as well, had never see that terrible color on Ushulubang's mantle.

Ushulubang fixed her gaze on Joseph. And now the huge eyes of the sage had none of their usual gentleness and wisdom. Hers was the pitiless scrutiny of a prophet.

"Do not judge your mother, spawn. You do not have the right. You demand from her the Answer, when she is demanding from herself the Question. You do not understand how terrible that Question is. You do not even understand that there is a Question."

Ushulubang made the gesture of rejection. "Go, spawn. All of you. Return to your training."

Again, the color of execution. "Go!"

The crowd fled. Except—after a few steps, Jens Knudsen stopped. Stopped, hesitated, then turned. He made his uncertain way back to Ushulubang.

The sage, mistress of shoroku, had to fight hard to maintain control. Else her mantle would have been flooded with green.

I thought it would be this one. (A mental whistle of amusement.) Whose soul bears, in truth, the passion of his color.

Jens Knudsen began to speak, could not find the words. Ushulubang made the gesture of acceptance.

"Tonight," she said. "I will await you in my hut."


After Jens Knudsen left, and Ushulubang was certain he was beyond hearing, she made the whistle of amusement she had so long repressed.

"I thought that went quite well," she said to Dhowifa.

The little truemale's mantle rippled with ochre.

"You are so sure, Ushulubang? Things are—much as you predicted. But, still—it is so dangerous."

"Dangerous?" demanded the sage. "Of course it is dangerous! The Way is dangerous, Dhowifa. There is nothing so dangerous as the Question. The way of safety is the way of the Answer. Safety—and oblivion."

"I know, I know. At least, I think I know."

Dhowifa fell silent. Ushulubang completed the thought.

"But you think it is too perilous. To goad the Mother of Demons until her soul shatters?"


"There is no other way, Dhowifa. In this, I am right. She must be forced to tell the secrets."

"Are her secrets really so terrible?"

Ushulubang whistled derision. "Stupid spawn! Have you learned nothing? She has no secrets."

Dhowifa's mantle rippled orange surprise.


"There are no secrets, Dhowifa. That is what she knows, and her children do not. How can the Question be secret? Only the Answer can be secret. And that is why she is so terrified, and cannot tell them what answers she does know. For fear of what questions those answers will bring."

"Then why did you say she must be forced to tell the secrets, if there are none?"

"It is the telling that is important, Dhowifa, not the thing told. The answer given is momentary, a vapor dispelled by the wind. But the telling—that is what lies at the center of the Coil."

"I do not understand why that is true."

"Because it is only in telling the answer that the Mother of Demons will finally accept the Question."

Dhowifa hesitated. "Is it so wise? To bring demons to the Way?" He gestured at Jens Knudsen. "That one, perhaps. He is young, and—very kind. He has meant much to Nukurren, these past days. But—the Mother of Demons? And the black demonlord? Can such fearsome beings really be—"

Ushulubang whistled derision.

"Be what, Dhowifa? 'Tamed'? Of course not. I do not wish to tame them. Quite the contrary. I wish to convert the demons in order to show the truth to the gukuy. Which is that we too are demons, and must be, and shall be. Because only demons have the courage to seek the Question."

Again, silence fell. After a moment, Ushulubang gestured at Nukurren.

"Soon, we must heal her."

Dhowifa's mantle rippled orange. "She is already healed, Ushulubang. Almost, at least. There will be scars, of course, and she will always be blind in one eye, but—"

"I was not speaking of those recent wounds to her body, Dhowifa. It is the great open wound in her soul which must be healed. The ancient wound which has bled all her life."

Dhowifa made the gesture of uncertainty. "She has seemed happy to me, these past few days. It has meant much to her, even though she will not speak of it, to find a friend in the demon Dzhenushkunutushen."

"You are wrong, Dhowifa. The friendship is a blessing, and a boon to her. As you have always been a boon to her. But there must be more. She must find the center of her Coil. She must find her life."


That night the demon Dzhenushkunutushen came to the hut of the sage Ushulubang, and spent many hours there, learning the Way of the Coil. The next night, he was accompanied by his lover, the demon Ludumilaroshokavashiki. Two nights thereafter, they were joined by Yoshefadekunula. The demonlord said nothing, but simply listened to the sage.

Night after night, Indira watched her children enter the hut. Night after night, she watched them leave. They did not speak to her, nor she to them.

And every night, after they were gone, Ushulubang emerged. The sage and the Mother of Demons would stare at each other for long minutes, saying nothing. The one, filled with anguish, wishing she too could enter the hut; the other, filled with love, barring the way.

Soon, Mother of Demons, thought Ushulubang. Soon. Soon you will find the courage to break your soul.


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