SM, CH. 7
We did not linger long in To’wak, although it took another day-cycle to make preparations. We had arrived as four individuals but we were leaving as thirty-five, most of whom were not fit for traveling. So we conducted all the former captives to the Workers’ Refectory, where everyone got a substantial feed, including pure, nourishing honeydew in large quantities. Ki’shto’ba persuaded some of the Healers to treat the fungal infections and neglected wounds. Actually, none of the lesser Shshi in To’wak seemed reluctant to help us, even among the Alates. Undoubtedly there were many who abhorred the deeds of their Commander and who wished to make amends. All the same, their open cooperation concerned us a little.
“What will Bai’go’tha do to those of you who have been willing to help our poor siblings?” Wei’tu asked one of its Da’no’no Shshi acquaintances.
“Oh, we will say that the evil brute Ki’shto’ba forced us to do it,” responded the Feeder cheerfully as it regurgitated ti’wa’zi| into the gullet of a Warrior.
“Or that Lo’ro’ra’s Remembrancer worked Shum’za magic upon us!” said another.
Even adequately fed, some of the captives remained too weak to stagger across the courtyard, and we had considerable misgivings about ever being able to get them home. Then someone – I cannot recall who at this distant time – had a brilliant idea. The body of Ur’cha’toi, the Warrior who had died that day, still lay in the outer courtyard awaiting the degradation of being cast into the dung pit. Ki’shto’ba ordered it retrieved and, as well as we could given the infirmity of many of us, we performed a mourning dance dedicated to Ur’cha’toi and the others who had died. Even some Da’no’no Shshi dared to take part. As the only Um’za Alate, I tried to lead the ritual, having participated in enough of them during Lo’ro’ra’s civil war and subsequent plague. I am not in any sense a Priest, however. But I think it is the intent that matters.
Then our Shum’za Workers, who had gained plenty of experience dismembering corpses, cut up Ur’cha’toi’s body and the captives consumed it. Nothing is so nourishing as the flesh of one’s own kind, when it is ingested with rituals of thanksgiving for the provision that the Highest-Mother-Who-Is-Nameless makes for us.
And so we made ourselves ready for the journey.
Ki’shto’ba and A’zhu’lo visited Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta one last time, and the Seer Thru’tei’ga’ma as well. Afterwards, both Warriors spent some time wandering about the courtyard together and I could detect grief hormones even at a distance.
And I thought of the Holy Seer. “Thru’tei’ga’ma – how can we leave him here? Bai’go’tha has already tried to kill him once, quite openly.”
“We could not take him with us,” said Wei’tu. “He can barely walk. His head is knocking on the door of the World Beyond.”
“Besides,” said Twa’sei, “we would have no bir’zha| for him. When I worked in the Fungus Garden at Lo’ro’ra, I spent as much time as I could in the Apothecary Garden next door, and one time a Healer Alate said that someone with the bir’zha| sickness can go without food or water more easily than without the Seer’s fungus. Without it, the poor individual dies a desperate and agonizing death, and not quickly. It would be cruel. It would be better for the Seer to die suddenly here in To’wak.”
Ki’shto’ba had rejoined us and so received these words. “Twa’sei is right,” it said. “Thru’tei’ga’ma has seen his own death and accepted it. We must leave him, although that saddens me greatly.” And it added, “Bai’go’tha does not know this, but Thru’tei’ga’ma told us of the portent of his death. He said, ‘I will never die as long as the walls of To’wak stand unbreached.’”
There was one other that I sought out, hoping to find an additional Companion. That one was Goi’o’na’tu. I told her we would be honored if she were to join our company.
She declined my offer even though it pleased her. “I am hale enough but too old to undertake such an adventure. Do not be too concerned about my safety. I know how to keep my head down and my wings furled. I give each audience the stories that it wants and do not improvise too much, and so I survive. Besides, there must be a Remembrancer of integrity here in To’wak to pass down the end of this tale. Thru’tei’ga’ma suggests it is not finished yet.”
And so it always was on our journeyings – everywhere some would join us and some would be left behind.
* * *
We departed late in a suntime; none of us wanted to wait through the long night, and anyway the dark affected only me. As we were about to pass through the gate, I looked back and I saw the tyrant Bai’go’tha standing stiffly at the entrance to the Warriors’ Quarters with its antennae quivering in our direction. I wonder even today what it was thinking.
All of our charges who had sufficient strength were harnessed with little bags of food and medicaments and a small container of thru’nev’zi| for sore legs; that last was mostly used up before the darktime was half over. Some of the Warriors carried the burdens of the weakest in addition to their own, and Ki’shto’ba and A’zhu’lo took considerable extra weight. We tottered into the marches and along the river, with a patrol of to’wak’zei| guards following us, something that did not make us easy. Were they there to ensure that we departed, or to attack us if our attention faltered? But Ki’shto’ba said that Bai’go’tha would not be so foolish, being well aware that it, the Huge-Head, would return and kill it should there be treachery.
We hurried to cross the ford and enter Shum’za territory before our initial strength gave out. We achieved that, with the only distress coming to myself, who was not keen on crossing the river in the waning light. We found a place to rest and everyone licked its wounds and the wounds of its comrades. The former captives were in excellent spirits considering the state of their health. Their most piteous prayers to the Nameless One had been answered.
All of us had been waking for nearly a day-cycle, and Ki’shto’ba insisted it would watch alone so the rest of us could sleep. I tried to protest, but only weakly, I fear. When I awoke some time later, I could see Ki’shto’ba’s bulk silhouetted against the stars, its antennae swaying with slow vigilance as it kept guard over us all. [FYI, this is the basis of the front cover drawing.]
At length I went to rouse A’zhu’lo to take its twin’s place and found it wakeful.
“I never expected such a course to my life, Remembrancer,” A’zhu’lo said. “I am not an adventurer at heart or a bold and invincible Champion like my ni’a’zei|. But I will do my best for Ki’shto’ba – for all of you. Thru’tei’ga’ma assured me this was my destiny.” And it added, “Perhaps one day I will even come to merit a surname of my own. I had never thought such an achievement to be possible.”
The march guards continued to follow us for a while even after we crossed the river, but they never intruded and finally they gave up and returned to To’wak. The liberated lo’ro’ra’zei| seemed to gain strength the nearer we came to home and we all began to trot along faster. It was not easy, however; the Warriors were trained to keep a formation, but the Workers straggled all over the place and the rest of us had to constantly herd them in toward the center like a flock of Little Ones. We did not want to lose anyone now that we were so close to the end.
Halfway to Lo’ro’ra we stopped. It was midafternoon of the next day-cycle, and we rested and ate and groomed ourselves, and used up what little was left of the foot ointment. Then, according to our plan, Ki’shto’ba rose up to address the company.
“Mu’tot’a, come and stand before me,” it said.
The Lieutenant approached nervously.
“My friend,” said Ki’shto’ba, “abase your head to me. For I the Champion of Lo’ro’ra would give you a surname, in recognition of what you have endured and as a reminder of what happens to those Warriors who fail to perceive the right path.” The Huge-Head laid its fearsome jaws on the lowered head of the Shshi Warrior. “I surname you Vak To – Mu’tot’a Vak To. Carry the name in pride and in sorrow. And these Warriors who return to Lo’ro’ra with you I name the same – the Phalanx of the Broken Mandible – and may you all serve Lo’ro’ra with honor and good fortune.”
When all had expressed their excitement and pleasure and gratitude and stopped hopping about and jabbering, Ki’shto’ba continued to speak.
“We have reached the outlying marches of Lo’ro’ra’s land. We may even encounter some march guards soon, although, with the fortress at peace and weakly garrisoned, not many are employed in that duty. That will change soon! Mu’tot’a surnamed Broken Mandible, do you think you can lead your comrades the rest of the way unaccompanied?”
There was another eruption of astonished stampings and twitchings. “Why, I believe so,” said the Lieutenant uncertainly. “But I thought you … What will we do if we meet the march guard? Who will explain … ?”
“You will, my friend, and you will be welcomed, because Lo’ro’ra needs all its citizens since the Star-Plague killed so many. When you meet a phalanx of Warriors, or whoever approaches you if you come unobserved to the fortress, ask them to take you before Commander A’gwa’ji and Chief Ni’shto’pri and the Holy Seer Gri’a’vu’tei. Go fearlessly before the Council and tell them about what happened to you after you fled the battle. Tell them what kind of hospitality the Commander of To’wak accorded its guests from across the Ti’re’bu. Tell them how many died and speak their names. The Councilors will be incensed that such an affront has been perpetrated against their defenseless citizens. And then say these words to them. I will speak them once and then again, and then I will have you recite them to me from memory, for it is important to repeat exactly what I am going to tell you.
“Say this: ‘I come from the Champion Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head and from the Remembrancer Di’fa’kro’mi, who have now set forth on their wanderings along with their Companions Wei’tu and Twa’sei and A’zhu’lo of To’wak, and I speak their words. The Champion rescued us peacefully by accepting exile from its homeland. It has served you well enough to ask a boon. It will not be a difficult boon to grant, because I know that all of you are angry at the brutal ways of To’wak. But it is not the essence of To’wak that is brutal but only one individual, the Commander Bai’go’tha, who by becoming a tyrant has brutalized its fortress. You who lived through the Rebellion of the Unnatural Alate will be able to understand how that can happen.
“‘You must kill the tyrant Bai’go’tha and make To’wak recognize that it allowed itself to be corrupted. This is the boon that Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head asks of you. But, Commander – Chief – Holy Seer – you must all be patient. Lo’ro’ra is still weak. If you attack To’wak in quick wrath, you will not win. The tyrant in To’wak will be expecting such a rash attack. Instead, be patient. Guard the marches in case Bai’go’tha attacks first – but Ki’shto’ba does not believe that it will do that, for it has no desire to risk losing its power.
“‘But perform many Regeneration rituals and hatch stout Warriors. Build up your forces and be coldly sure that you can win. Then in two or even three season-cycles, when To’wak has grown complacent about the submissive ways of its neighbor, set a battle-plan and initiate the assault. It will be a virtuous battle.
“‘I say again, kill the tyrant Bai’go’tha, an act which Ki’shto’ba forewent in order to ransom Lo’ro’ra’s citizens without carnage. Kill any Warrior that fights for the tyrant but no other to’wak’zei|, if that can be avoided. Take special care for the old Seer Thru’tei’ga’ma if he be still alive at that time, and of course for all other Alates and the Holy One Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta. And for the King Yan’ut’na’sha’ma as well, who is a small-minded creature and has paid sufficiently for any transgressions he committed. Teach those who remain after the battle the right way of governing a fortress of the Shshi of any race, for To’wak has forgotten what that way is. And then, when you have done all you can, return to Lo’ro’ra and leave To’wak to itself.
“‘I say these things in the words that the Champion Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head and Holy Di’fa’kro’mi the Remembrancer of Lo’ro’ra taught me. They send you greetings and will always keep you in their memories.’”
Everyone was much moved and exhilarated as Ki’shto’ba repeated the speech over and taught it to Mu’tot’a, who said, “I will do this, Huge-Head, and willingly. Lo’ro’ra will not fail you! And perhaps one day I myself, Mu’tot’a Vak To, will find a chance to take revenge, and to demonstrate compassion as well, in the way that you have shown us.”
And so the former refugees went on alone. We waited on a hill and followed their progress until I could see, and the others could sense, nothing but the wind blowing across dry grass. Then we turned our backs on Lo’ro’ra a second time and once more headed northward.
What resulted from these words remained unknown to us for many season-cycles. But at a later time that story will be told …
As we trudged along feeling the fatigue from the past hectic days, Ki’shto’ba moved with its head averted and its antennae drooping.
“Good Champion, you seem dejected,” I said.
Ki’shto’ba lifted its head then. “I am homeless now. I always intended to wander, but I never thought I would not be able to return home. You will not abandon me, will you, my friends?”
At that we made a great protest, and Twa’sei rubbed against Ki’shto’ba’s belly and said, “I would never abandon you, Huge-Head. I will always care for you! You are the most wonderful great Warrior the world has ever known!”
Ki’shto’ba swung its antennae in amusement and said, “You are kind, little Companion. I have no serious doubt about the loyalty of any of you.”
“Besides,” I said stoutly, “you do not know that you will never return home. You only have to perform twelve wonders. You have performed at least three already!”
“How do you determine that?”
“Why, there is the Nasute Siege of Lo’ro’ra, and there is the killing of Commander Hi’ta’fu and the Unnatural Alate … ”
“That might count as two!” interrupted Wei’tu.
“ … and there is the Rescue of the Captive lo’ro’ra’zei| … ”
“And how can anything be more of a wonder than being a child of Prai’mo’na’sha’ma?” exclaimed Twa’sei.
“And you saved me from death in the nursery when we were both newly hatched,” added A’zhu’lo.
Ki’shto’ba had a counterword for every suggestion. “Oh, those things … In the Nasute Siege I only subdued Commander Hi’ta’fu and then let it live – something I regret. And I failed to prevent the deaths of both the Star-Being’s na’sha’ma| and Holy Kwi’ga’ga’tei – those disasters offset several successful deeds. I still do not really believe I am the offspring of some sky-spirit being, and as far as killing the reptiles – I was only a nymph. Besides, anything I did at To’wak surely does not count … ”
So arguing over what constituted a wonder, we plodded onward into the distant reaches of the empty plain.
To be posted soon on Ruminations of a Remembrancer
(we meet the Fifth Companion):