He and half a dozen other children were dressed in robes— itchy wool robes that made it uncomfortable to walk; he stood with his legs apart and his arms out so the fabric wouldn’t rub against his body. They were arranged on the platform, not close enough to talk to each other, and the priest was talking and chanting. He was scary enough at home, big and apt to suddenly appear forbidding something, but now he was wearing a mask that made him look like a bird of prey. He took a chicken and sacrificed it on an altar, then applied a generous smear of blood on the foreheads of each of the children. The blood was warm for a moment, then cold, but he was not allowed to wipe it off. He could feel it dripping down his face.
And then there was the ktuvok, plodding towards them from the sunken part of the platform. He was huge, nine feet tall, and thick as well. The sun was behind him, so Shikhar could not make out details, but he could see the frill of tentacles on his head, the tleche or glory as it was called. He wore no clothes. The priest came to meet him, bowed down before him, and talked to him.
Shikhar hoped that the ktuvok would not come closer, that he would go away, but no; he was walking toward the children. A hand behind him forced his shoulders down, and he lay down on the wet pavement. It was harder to see now, but he looked up, shivering, to see the dark shape of the ktuvok approaching, its feet like huge pads slapping the pavement. He had a glimpse of wicked claws. There was a warm sensation in the bottom of his robes; he had wet himself.
The ktuvok stopped in front of Shikhar, and he could see the big feet and legs, mottled, green, the skin scaly and glistening like a snake’s. He heard him say something; the sound was so strange and distorted, a sort of whistled moan, that he couldn’t make out what it was, till he moved on and said the same thing over each of the other children. It was “Inwikhol gat”— you are my child.
The ktuvoks were made to rule man. On their own, humans were chaotic and shiftless savages, consumed by animal lusts and unable to keep from famine, banditry, and constant petty wars. The ktuvoks personally taught the First People (that was the meaning of Demoshi) agriculture and metallurgy, made us into a powerful empire, and taught us the ways of the universe.
The Six Gods (Rurumalh Plhek) were above the ktuvoks as they are above us. They were beings of destruction as well as creation; it was only the ktuvoks’ intercession that kept their attitudes benign, and even this could fail, leading to disasters and the need for appeasement.
There were other supernatural beings— underlings of the Six Gods, wild spirits, the restless dead— and a priest (litndekno) could intercede with them, with the proper sacrifice. The more you ask for, the more you’d better be willing to give. They always listen if a human life is given.
The ktuvok he had met was called Jotsunaril, and that was also the name of his trêm, his estate. He was the nampálh, his particular ktuvok lord. Jotsunaril owned something over a thousand humans; Shikhar’s own village (kêttra) had more than ninety. Jostunaril didn’t live in the trêm, of course; he lived in the Great Wetlands (etmekâsh). It was an occasion when he visited; even the elders got nervous.
Shikhar had many memories of being face down in the dirt, with a yelling, hitting boy on top of him. It seemed to happen a lot when there weren’t any adults around, and it didn’t seem entirely fair— mostly the boys were a year or more older, so of course they could beat him.
He tried to give as good as he got, of course. For practice and confidence, he picked on the younger kids... six or so, just old enough to wander dangerously away from their house.
One day he challenged Thkikil, a boy his own age, to a wrestling match. A challenge was a serious thing, much more than a routine beatdown of an interior; they attracted a crowd. Shikhar fought furiously— several times he felt close to immobilizing the other boy, and several times he wriggled away from a hold himself. He lost, finally, but Thkikil was gracious about it. “You did good, Goat,” he said—Goat, bekhar, was his nickname, because it sounded like Shikhar. “You got the moves; you’re just not strong enough.”
Several months later he got a rematch and won it. He had advanced a rank in the boys’ pecking order; he felt like a hero. He was not as gracious in victory as Thkikil had been; it was too much of a pleasure to use the higher-rank forms of speech to his former superior, and make him call him by his right name.
The hierarchy was a constant thing. There was never a moment in his life when he had a peer; the world was divided into superiors and inferiors. Every sentence reinforced this; words had to be pronounced differently depending on who you were talking to. Adults had to be treated with deference.
He learned quickly that rank included allies. One boy above him was smaller than Shikhar, and that seemed wrong, so he challenged him. The boy came with two supporters, and they thrashed Shikhar. Still, they treated him a little better after that: even if you lost a challenge, making it gave you some esteem.
Shikhar sometimes felt sorry for Rôgne, the boy on the bottom of the ladder. He was small for his size, and the boys just above him never let him forget it. His name wasn’t really Rôgne, that meant “turnip”— something lower than even a mammal. But he was after all kind of a pathetic creature, with a cringing smile that only provoked irritation. Sometimes Rôgne would go harrass the girls instead— girls were supposed to all rank under boys. But the biggest girl his size had actually beaten him up.
When he was twelve, Shikhar was initiated (ôthrak) into his kukla. His was Kor, the Spider, and he was given a tattoo (dhnêsh) on his upper arm: a viper for Jotsunaril and a spider for Kor. He was also given a collar, a lhutrêm, which marked him as an adult and a servant of the nampálh.
There were four different kukukla in the village; about half the boys his age were also Spiders. The assignments were done such that the four groups were distributed across all ages, but formed age cohorts with a gap of about five years— that is, the new Spiders ranged from twelve to sixteen, and the next older group was in their mid twenties. There was a strong sense of rivalry with the other kukla of the same age, the Wewetla (Lizards), not least because the previous pecking order among the boys were erased: for each group, the other counted as inferior.
There was some rivalry with the next groups up, too, but since they were older anyway this was no great change. His own father was a Getha, a Raven.
The entire kukla was a work unit, led by one of the older men— the tâkno or boss. If a large project had to be done, the ulkêttra or village chief would assign it to one of the kukukla, and this now included Shikhar. Sometimes this meant chopping wood, sometimes building or repairing a wall, sometimes cleaning out the cattle shed— all sorts of things. When there was a work day, the kukla would eat together, and there would be extra beer. (Working in the fields was family work; his father directed that.)
Occasionally there was an errand out of the village: repairing roads, gathering wood in the forest, bringing supplies from a town, working at the limestone mine or the mill, even venturing into the Great Wetlands to do a task for the nampálh. If they left the trêm, they were chained together by their collars so no one got lost. They were taught to be cautious about humans from other têtrêm, and this wasn’t hard advice to follow— they just seemed to look and talk a little strangely.
The kukukla were also the natural teams for games. Games were viewed as preparation for war: wrestling and boxing to build strength, archery to improve aim, swordfighting and spear-tossing to increase skill, running and swimming for endurance. But they were interesting in their own right, and fueled group and individual rivalries with the Lizards.
The swordfighting started with wooden rods, then dull iron blades, and even then had to be done under adult supervision. Only the ulkêttra owned a sharp steel sword; in wartime they’d go to a special stronghold to pick up weapons. They were trained to avoid killing each other, of course, but a serious cut wasn’t rare, and a scar or two was admired as a sign of a fighting nature.
Challenges to the pecking order were now formal duels using one of these methods, watched by a crowd who made excited side bets on the participants. As it happened, Shikhar was clearly better at physical combat than Thkikil, but Thkikil could reliably beat him at archery. So he would beat the other boy in combat, and then Thkikil would contrive to challenge him in archery, and move up when he won, requiring another challenge in an eightday or so. It was annoying and unfair, especially as archery wasn’t even a real man’s sport; it was women’s role in war. But you couldn’t turn down a challenger’s choice of game. Finally he spent a week with an older boy practicing with the bow, and managed to beat Thkikil; that kept things stable for a long while.
From infancy Shikhar was dressed in long cotton tunics (shmet); after his initiation he wore a short tunic and trousers (nadh). It was shameful to be naked— a human looks particularly weak and pathetic when naked; only captives and criminals were seen naked in public. And all that animal hair... Shikhar kept his trimmed as much as possible, while the elite shaved their heads.
Another manifestation of shameful mammalian nature was lust. The ktuvoks, he was told, didn’t experience this and raised their children alone.
Occasionally he was able to play with girls from the village— something between wrestling and teasing and mutually interested fondling. Getting privacy to do this wasn’t easy— girls were usually watched closely by members of their family as well as their kukla.
There was another outlet— Rôgne, the turnip. There were things you shouldn’t do to an inferior— permanently hurt them, for instance; the elders punished that. But there didn’t seem to be any problem with sexual play. It wasn’t just Rôgne either.
Once he was about nineteen, the older members of the kukla began to look for a wife for him. Spiders didn’t marry other Spiders; they had to marry Ravens, either from his village or from another in the trêm. His input wasn’t solicited; rather, one day he was presented with a girl from another village— shy, trembling, about three years younger. Her name was Cheket. The elders gave some instructions; she was formally presented to his father, who formally presented her to Shikhar; the priest put on his mask and intoned some words, both were given beer to drink, and they were married.
Shikhar took her home to the house where he lived with his parents. He wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next, and neither was she; she sat next to him during their evening supper, nearly silent, looking forlorn. His parents looked at them with funny smiles but didn’t offer any advice. He felt aroused but frustrated. In the end he suggested that they sleep, and they did. She didn’t remove her robes and he was too confused to touch her.
Fortunately one of the older members of his kukla was married, and when Shikhar asked the next day, he explained what to do. Till you had a house of our own, you took the girl away from the village, into the woods or to one of the shepherds’ huts in the hills. Shikhar followed this advice. The girl came with nervously. She didn’t want to take off her robe, but she let him remove her skirt. He was a farm boy and knew pretty much what to do; but when he did it she yelled and bled and wasn’t willing any more. He continued anyway and she calmed down... fortunately for both of them, perhaps, he was done quickly.
There was nowhere to go but up, after that. Apparently it hurt less, and eventually she got to like it, especially if he played with her body first. She would get entirely naked only if it was dark, however.
Once most of the kukla was married, there was a certain amount of sharing, voluntary or not. Everyone soon learned to be careful, though: forcing sex could piss off the husband— even Rôgne— and furious people had a way of fighting well beyond their normal capabilities. There were unexpected upsets and some new alliances. Sharing wives was usually the glue holding together an alliance.
Shikhar learned that by soft-talking the girls, or giving them gifts, it was possible to get their cooperation, and that was safer and a lot more fun.
The elite could be more cavalier; they usually played with their servants— not so much with the commoners (katsukhno, literally hairy ones, because they didn’t shave), who were considered too animalistic and dirty.
There were two kinds of war. One, the most frequent, was between two têtrêm, the result of conflict between their nampálhs. More than once the entire trêm was mobilized, provided with steel swords, and marched a long way off somewhere. The kukla became a military squadron, camping together and, if it came to that, fighting together. The two sides would meet in sight of each other and stand endlessly, ready to fight, while the opposing commanders (ulmekha) counted each other’s forces and evaluated their fighting potential. The ktuvoks would walk around among their humans, an imposing and angry presence.
In Shikhar’s experience the two armies never engaged as a whole. Bouts would be arranged between small groups of fighters while everyone else watched. The two ktuvoks would watch from either end of the sparring ground— this was as close as they got to each other; they never talked, though envoys would frequently run back and forth. A given bout would end when someone was killed; but this didn’t decide the war; another bout would occur later. This could go on for days, and then suddenly it’d be over, and everyone would march home.
Sometimes a bit of territory would be exchanged, or even an entire village. It was said that sometimes the two ktuvoks would switch territories— each taking their humans with them.
The other type of war was against the outsiders (gogonamno, or more insultingly, gogono). Apparently this was quite common if you lived by the frontier. In a sense everyone had a stake in these wars, because a trêm normally had branches in the conquered territories. Once in Shikhar’s lifetime one of his nampálh’s far estates must have been threatened, because the entire trêm was mobilized for war and marched to defend it. Only the very old and women with young children stayed home.
This was a long adventure full of novelties. First they marched to a city, Kotodo; Shikhar had never seen such a huge human settlement, nor such a mass of elegantly dressed people. The elite dressed from head to toe, often in ways that imitated the ktuvoks: reptile-skin outfits, hats with artificial frills, shoes with bifurcated toes. Their collars were decorated with gold or gems. They wore masks, as a sign that they were worthy of meeting the ktuvoks face to face... a ktuvok didn’t want to see naked mammal faces, after all.
Then they embarked on a sailing ship and made a long sea voyage. Shikhar had never seen the sea, never imagined that a house could be built to slide over it, and certainly never pictured it bobbing around so sickeningly. The ship was overcrowded and everyone seemed to be seasick. A priest came around every day to check on the soldiers; it wouldn’t do to lose them merely in transport. He prayed for them and gave them nasty-tasting medicine that was supposed to calm their stomachs.
Then there was another eightday of marching, and they had arrived. The nampálh’s possession in this far country was a single village of oddly dressed people who couldn’t even speak Demoshi, except for their leaders. They had Jotsunaril’s tattoo, but they were all inferiors and could be treated as such. They weren’t allowed to pillage or hurt people, of course, but they and their women were there to serve.
At one point there was a flurry of activity; important personages were bustling about, and a space was cleared in the encampment. After this Shikhar saw no less than four ktuvoks advancing into the space, accompanied by their gorgeously dressed retainers. One was Jotsunaril. It was an alarming sight and Shikhar was glad that he was not at all nearby. He never learned what it was about, but the rumor in the kukla was that it was planning for the battle to come.
Finally they marched out toward the enemy. This was exciting— the enemies were the pigeon men (pupudagno), Munkhâsh’s traditional enemy to the west, and Shikhar was eager to see them; he half expected them to look like birds. They themselves looked formidable, dressed in full armor— a padded leather poncho, a metal helmet, leg greaves, shield— and painted in terrifying patterns.
They marched and camped and marched and never saw the enemy. This was disappointing, but in a moment of candor— the hierarchy was more relaxed in wartime— the village chief mentioned that the Demoshi were there not so much to fight as to make sure that the locals fought. They were related to the pigeon men and might be tempted to defect, or hold back, if they weren’t stiffened with Demoshi.
Finally there was the long journey home, all the longer since many of the soldiers had become sick. Not all of them made it home.
Cheket’s first year was hard— she was lowly among the Ravens, knew no one in the village, and though Shikhar treated her all right, there was no feeling of love or friendship. She missed her family terribly, but there was no question of going back.
She was rarely alone— the women worked in the fields together, or spun or wove, even bathed in small groups. From constant association came interaction and eventually fights and alliances. Many said that the women fought harder and held grudges longer than the men. Most of the women in the village had come from elsewhere— a few even came from her village; they had left too soon for her to know them, but at least they had common acquaintances to talk about.
Women made the meals— mostly bread, with vegetables and sometimes chicken or goat, spiced with horseradish (drabma) and salt. The men brewed the barley beer (tleno) which was the usual beverage. There was also a stronger, quick-brewed maize beer (mruja); this was made every few eightdays and consumed in a raucous party with plenty of singing and dancing.
Her life changed again when she had her first baby. She was immediately elevated above all the childless women in the group— indeed, they could be impelled to help take care of it— and Shikhar and her in-laws were now actually affectionate with her.
And they were now entitled to a house of their own. Notionally, it was built by Shikhar and his family, out of stone, but in practice there was usually a house available— when a couple died their house would be used as a stable or storeroom till it was needed for a young couple. (If a Demoshi trêm grew overcrowded, some would be sent to settle the conquered territories.) It was work enough to clean out the house, repair the stonework and roof, and set it up with furniture and stores, but finally it was ready.
Cheket was overjoyed when her sister, another Raven, married one of the other young men in Shikhar’s kukla and came to live in the village. Though she lived with her husband’s family, she spent as much time as possible with Cheket, and helped with the baby. And with an ally, both women moved up in the Raven hierarchy.
A trêm produced almost everything it needed; it had farmers, herders, and craftsmen, as well as two water mills. If something was lacking and could be produced locally— thatch, arrows, hempen bags, whatever— a kukla would be assigned to do it. Scarce resources or tools were allocated by the elders.
Everything ultimately belonged to the nampálh. Your land and your house were yours to use, but went back to the village when you died. There wasn’t much point in amassing goods or working more than necessary, and generally people didn’t, unless there was a special task to do and someone overseeing. There wasn’t really a concept of rich and poor, only commoners and elite, and the latter were determined by not by wealth but by role: chiefs, priests, commanders, smiths, accountants.
Each trêm had a specialty, as well; Jotsunaril’s had two: goats and limestone. Much of the trêm was hilly and unsuitable for crops, so herds of goats were raised, producing a surplus of leather, dried meat, cheese, and kids. There were also great blocks of limestone exposed in the hills, and these were mined into huge blocks that were rolled down the roads to the river and embarked to Kotodo. The work on these activities was communal, assigned to one kukla at a time.
The surplus from one trêm was exported, supervised by a corps of accountants (titnipno). Shipments were recorded on clay tablets (wawachala), in duplicate: one tablet was laid out, tokens pressed into it to record items and amounts, and another tablet pressed on top, producing a mirror-image copy. The trêm would keep a copy for each shipment out; other accountants would sometimes come to inspect these. The quotas were high and any form of cheating was strictly punished.
Jotsunaril’s trêm also received specialty goods from other têtrêm— linen, lumber, salt, spices, glazed pots, iron for the smithy, armor, agricultural goods, calves and foals, even snakeskin in quantities precisely calibrated so the small number of top officials could wear elite clothing.
How all this was worked out Shikhar had no idea. Rarely was the trêm consulted about what it needed; one year it received a huge load of canvas for which there was no obvious need. Some was sent to each village, and it was used in various ways— awnings, cloaks, hammocks, bags. On the other hand, when one of the mills broke down, it took almost two years for the machinery to be imported and installed.
The authorities gave the impression that all this was managed somehow by the ktuvoks, though the agents Shikhar saw were all human. But perhaps they were just carrying out ktuvok orders; the ktuvoks had come up with the system, after all.
As he grew older, Shikhar learned by experience what kept the village running fairly smoothly. It wasn’t solidarity or wisdom; it was annoyance. Seeing children or teenagers fighting grew tedious and then infuriating; if he saw it he might give both participants a cuff and send them in opposite directions. Same thing if he caught a boy fondling a girl, or just goofing off. Little squirts ought to be doing something useful.
On the other hand, he grew to appreciate Cheket and love his children; most of his life was the trêm’s, but these were his.
But then Cheket grew terribly sick, in her late fifties. He cared for her as best he could, then went to the tâkno, and the two of them consulted the priest. He examined her, put on his mask and said prayers, and gave her medicines; but she died within a month. Now the priest had to put on his mask again and say the chant for the dead, and Cheket was burned. Humans were frail things; only the gods lasted forever.
As Munkhâshi was never written, we don’t have any direct testimony from Munkhâshis, only reports from outsiders, and those were very rare inside the empire before the conquest. So this sketch is based on such reports, and documentation from the Cađinorian administration, as well as knowledge of how Dhekhnam works (but this must be carefully evaluated as there are major differences between the ancient and modern empires).
The Demoshi— Munkhâshi tmôt ‘the first’— were the core of the empire, but because of that very fact were insulated from its darker aspects. The empire was divided into ethnic layers; earlier conquests dominated the later. Those on the bottom were little better than slaves... worse off, in that they provided a disproportionate number of the human sacrifices required by the priests.
The Munkhâshi term for the process of assimilating a group was blutmu— grinding or milling. It was an appropriate term: the conquered group’s culture and institutions were dismantled piece by piece: armies, lords, cities, religions, families; nothing remained that could serve as a focus for opposition or rebellion. Then they were reconstituted according to the Demoshi model, attached to existing trêms, instructed in the worship of the Six Gods.
And then... as the sketch suggests, Munkhâsh was stable and even prosperous in its own way. Step out of line and you’d be crushed; but co-operate and life was not so bad. As the Sarnáeans later said, ktuvoks were better rulers than the nomads; humans were pathetic hairy mammals, but valuable.
If you’ve read the biology pages, you may remember that the ktuvoks are themselves mammals. By our biological standards yes, but not by theirs or those of their subjects. The ktuvoks were memelhodo, scaled creatures, along with reptiles and most amphibians. (The ktuvoks are adapted to the oceans and have no hair.) The iliu were classified with the dzôdzôpto, the fish, while humans were kakatsukil, furry ones.)