The Battle of the Middle Path.
As afternoon reached its warmest, the large main force of the Cupiditas reached the margin of the lands frequented by the Veritas. NUT-PI spied a knoll somewhat higher than the rest. He climbed atop this knoll and called his warriors to stand below and listen carefully as he spoke.
“Behold, all Cupiditas, for you stand on the edge of victory! Soon, you will have a chance to fight bravely for all your people! Many of you will come home, not only as heroes, but as rich heroes, for you will have your share of the women and grain and gold of the Veritas! You will be glorified among our people. We have marked the path to take you into the very heart of the Veritas. ALT-R will lead you to the Center Place of the Veritas where you will meet up with more of our people as well as the Fierce and Formidable Warriors of the North and the Nomads of the Southern Dry Lands. I will stand atop this hill where I may better direct your efforts. Although this position is quite exposed and therefore more dangerous than being on the front lines, I do not care for I will be here and lead us to victory! Tonight we rest, but before dawn tomorrow, we attack!”
ALT-R thought it strange that NUT-PI would not lead his warriors from the front of the pack but rather stay back on this large hill. He would not be in any danger at all. There were no Veritas around. And even so, an arrow shot up so far would be rather easy to dodge. And, although it was true that the knoll offered an excellent view in three directions, the battle itself would take place on the other side a rather large forest. NUT-PI would not be able to see any such battle. He could only hear reports from messengers. ALT-R would not question NUT-PI about any of this, he decided, because he knew NUT-PI to be a vain man who cared nothing for the truth and would literally kill one of his own who questioned him. Besides, ALT-R thought he might be able to turn NUT-PI’s style of leading at a distance to his own advantage. Though ALT-R was not a commander among the Cupiditas, they would be following his instructions on where to go and having gotten in the habit, once they reached the Center Place of the Veritas, the whole tribe might listen to his instructions on where to find treasure and how to divvy things up.
ALT-R was about to rest among a nice soft bed of moss that he knew grew in a small copse of trees nearby when one of the messengers of NUT-PI said that his presence was required by NUT-PI atop the hill. ALT-R knew he had no choice in the matter, but in case he did have any doubts, he was accompanied by four of NUT-PI’s guards. They ascended the hill and came to a small tent which had been pitched atop the knoll. In front, NUT-PI perched upon a small rock. He looked straight at ALT-R who had kowtowed as he had learned appropriate. “So, ALT-R, what do you think of my strategy to lead my force from this vantage point?”
At this point, the guards drew back a distance they deemed respectful to NUT-PI but close enough to function as guards with the spears at the ready to be thrown at — and through — ALT-R.
ALT-R bit his lip, unsure how to answer. “Sire, it is not for me to judge your decisions. My job is to show your warriors the ways through the guards of the Veritas, their traps, and the natural barriers so they may arrive near the Center Place unharmed, or at least, as little harmed as possible.”
NUT-PI laughed. “So, you think my question a stupid one?”
ALT-R said, “Of course not! It’s a good question.”
NUT-PI’s voice changed to one of cold and steel, “Then answer it! I command you!”
ALT-R began, “Well, the idea of being able to see the whole battle field before you is a good one. However, I am afraid that, if the battle goes as I imagine it will, you will not actually have a very good view from here. The Veritas are likely to engage us on the other side of that woods where there is a steep hill and then a large flat plain. Beyond that is a shallow river and beyond that is the Center Place of the Veritas, none of which can be seen from here.” Now ALT-R began to sweat even more. In his desire to show off his knowledge, he had perhaps said too much.
NUT-PI laughed again, without any real mirth or warmth. “It’s more symbolic that anything else. Another reason I decided to stay back, between you and me, is that I want the men to gather glory for themselves, not me.”
ALT-R thought this very likely another bogus reason but aloud all he said was, “Indeed, Sire.”
NUT-PI winked at ALT-R. “Plus I have a bad blister on my heel. I don’t want to slow down the troops.”
ALT-R suspected this might be part of the real reason, but he suspected that NUT-PI was a coward, pure and simple. Of course, to even hint at such would be to court, nay, guarantee, his own death so he tried to push these judgements out of his mind.
NUT-PI’s voice now took on a happier tone. “I didn’t call you up here to get your opinion on my military strategy. I really want to tell you three things. First, do not fail in showing my people the way through to the Center Place. Second, do not imagine that you will become the leader of my people. I know you are the ambitious sort and it’s fine that you can be the slave-driver of the Veritas but if you try to vanquish me, you will die a horrible death. Third, when you come to the Center Place and capture the slaves, I want you to bring me the three most spirited of the Veritas women for my private amusement. I will personally torture them into submission. If you succeed in these three things, your life will prove most excellent. If you fail in any of these things, your life will be short. But if you betray me in any way, your life will be much much longer than you will wish it to be. Now go and do as you are commanded.”
The Veritas meanwhile discussed their own strategy. Their mood was euphoric for they now were buoyed by the thought that they had driven off both the Fierce and Formidable Fighters of the North and the Southern Nomads without really doing much battle at all!
She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives frowned. “It is good, my people, that we have made peace where it was possible, but it is too soon to celebrate. We still have battle ahead. Do not underestimate the Cupiditas. Though we outnumber them, they are still many and well-trained. And, they have ALT-R’s help.”
She-of-Many-Paths brought out some Ishago bones and waved them in the air. “I am not so sure that we outnumber them. We have all been saying that we outnumber the Cupiditas, and that may be so. But I am seeing another possibility. You see how it is among us. We are all equal. We all live, at least partly, in the Center Place together. But now think of the Cupiditas. They are all about power, not truth. They do not think of each other as equals. They have a society that has few at the top and many below. On those few occasions when any of the Veritas have visited, they have gone to their Central Place — or rather what such visitors assumed was their Central Place — and not seen so many as we ourselves are.” Here she again waved the bones in her hand upon which were inscribed marks for the Cupiditas who had been seen.
“But I am thinking that those among us and our ancestors who made these counting marks may not have counted accurately. There may be a less desirable place than we ever visited with many more Cupiditas than we have ever seen. We may only have seen some of the Cupiditas. Perhaps many more live in less desirable circumstances. For it seems the nature of people who live as the Cupiditas that they don’t want everyone to live in similar circumstances. Rather, the happiness of the few is contingent on having a much larger number of people with little. This was the nature of the Orange Man that we revile in myth but whom the Cupiditas celebrate in song. Even the war garb of the Cupiditas, besides the blood red, is orange to honor the Orange Man. So, it strikes me as entirely possible that we will face a much larger force of Cupiditas. I could be wrong. But I might not be. Such persons as have nothing might be whipped into a killing frenzy by someone such as NUT-PI who will blame all the troubles of the Cupiditas on us.”
Eagle Eyes spoke next, “I see us as a circle or better as a web within a circle. But when I try to imagine the Cupiditas, this is the shape I see.” Using the back of her spear, she drew a triangle in the dirt. “Here is NUT-PI and here are his captains.” Here she pointed at the apex of the triangle. “And the top part of this — this is what our people have seen of the Cupiditas. But down here — this large area may be all the Cupiditas whom no-one has seen.”
She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives nodded her agreement. “This may be so. Or not. But we must be prepared for a hard battle. We cannot assume that we will greatly outnumber them when it could be that they greatly outnumber us.”
Trunk of Tree added, “Though we have heard nothing like that from KAVA-NUT or POND MUD.”
Shadow Walker said, “True, though they might not even themselves know of such. These traitors are meant to teach the Cupiditas about us, but I do not think they are experts in the Cupiditas ways.”
She-of-Many-Paths spoke again, “You see how it is with many of our distant cousins in the forests. They grow and prosper by roots but also by fruits and seeds. So too must it be with us. We need numerous plans for numerous possibilities. Perhaps we will be lucky a third time and this battle will also prove easy, but it may also prove hard and for that we must be prepared. We should even have a way to warn the whole of us if the fierce and formidable of the north or the Sabra as they call themselves were to rejoin the battle.”
And so it was that many possible contingency plans were outlined and such were communicated throughout the Veritas. Guards were rotated throughout the night. Each warrior, man or woman, attempted to get what rest they could and dreamed whatever dreams they might. Each warrior, man or woman, knew that they would be fighting on the morrow and that such a day as that could be their last on this green earth, the last on which to feel a loving touch or laugh at the antics of a child. They knew they would be fighting for their life but also for the life of the tribe, the Veritas, the way of the truth, and what happened would not only echo through their own life but also the lives of people yet unborn. Moreover, since greedy people care not for anything but themselves, the skill and intelligence of the Veritas on the morrow would also impact the tree of life itself, at least in this part of the world that they knew and loved.
As the still-sunken sun began to paint the palest pink strokes upon the clouds, the Cupiditas awoke and began their relentless march, following ALT-R and the trees marked with the rat-god AGAM upon their trunks. The Cupiditas were numerous indeed. As had been foreseen by She-of-Many-Paths, the Veritas had only ever visited the relatively rich main camp of the Cupiditas. In many scattered camps on the border of the northern wastes, a much greater number of Cupiditas eked out a living as best they could. All the males beyond the age of 10 winters had been conscripted to join the throng. They had not been made false promises of riches as had the warrior class. NUT-PI had told the lesser minions that they had no choice if they wished to see their loved ones alive. He had also been careful to paint a picture of the Veritas as monster criminals who, if left unchecked, would come and destroy all the camps of the Cupiditas just as they “always did.” NUT-PI concocted quite a gruesome tale about how the Veritas were a bloodthirsty lot and especially like to cut the arms and necks of Cupiditas women and children and suck out their blood until they died.
Though numerous, these second-class Cupiditas were not nearly so well-trained as the warriors in the central camp. They were eager to get to kill a Veritas or two and return to their own villages. They began advancing in a broad line without regard to the path ALT-R was taking. Many followed the markings on the true path to the Center Camp of the Veritas, but many others followed false trails into brambles or box canyons. ALT-R began seeing Cupiditas beside him both north and south and some even were ahead of him. He spoke loudly.
“Listen! Follow me! There are also false trails. Keep in narrow file through the woods! On the other side we may gather atop a hill for a mighty charge down the hill onto the plain!” At these words, two or three of the Cupiditas drew near him to follow in his footsteps. The vast majority looked over at ALT-R, stopped for a few moments with a puzzled look, and then resumed fanning out into the forest. ALT-R was supposed to lead the Cupiditas but had no real title among them. More importantly, he was far from facile with their language. ALT-R grew exasperated and began shouting his instructions. To the Cupiditas, this made his speech all the more unintelligible and most ignored him. He shouted more loudly, “FOLLOW the true path, not the false ones, you …” But here ALT-R broke off from shouting. He didn’t know the Cupiditas word for “stupid” and, he realized his words were having no effect. He retraced his steps till he came upon a Cupiditas dressed and face-painted as one of the captains in authority. Slowly, he used gestures and made the man, named OR-man-AA realize that everyone was supposed to be following his lead. He saw that the lower class Cupiditas were getting too far ahead. OR-man-AA didn’t really see this as a problem. On the other hand, he did know that NUT-PI had ordered everyone to follow ALT-R through the woods so he shouted this to his nearby lieutenants who in turn made cursory efforts to organize the troops. Had NUT-PI been close by, their efforts would have been more diligent, but as it was, they saw little point.
Indeed, the false paths led only a few of the scattered throng of Cupiditas to their death and a few more to injury. By dawn, a huge number of Cupiditas milled about the far edge of the forest in the deep shade waiting for the order to attack. About fifty yards before them, a long steep hill led down to a large flat plain where they could see a small force of Veritas soldiers raising their spears and shouting at them. Beyond, they could see the stream that the three traitors had foretold, and just beyond that the smoke of the morning fires of the Veritas Central Place. Seeing that they vastly outnumbered the small band of Veritas visible on the plain below, OR-man-AA shouted at them to ready their weapons and charge. They sprinted the fifty yards to the edge of the long hill and began sprinting down it.
ALT-R had hoped to lead this charge but instead, being only of average speed, he found himself in the middle of it. There were so many Cupiditas all about him that he found it difficult to see much more than Cupiditas running beside him, behind him and in front of him. As he came to the edge of the hill, his view of the downslope and the plain below opened up suddenly. The Cupiditas warriors were slipping and sliding and falling all around him. He found it incredibly difficult to keep his footing as he ran. He usually walked carefully down this slope but had never slipped or fallen. The slope seemed littered with round rocks everywhere. Cupiditas warriors were tripping and falling everywhere. A few were nicked by the poison tipped weapons of the captains and a few were trampled. A few suffered broken ankles. Most simply fell a few times, got back up and continued their headlong descent. Before them, ALT-R could see that the Veritas were in full retreat rushing back to their Center Place. About halfway down the hill, ALT-R noticed that the bottom of the hill looked somehow different than he remembered it. “TRAPS!” he shouted in his native Veritas tongue. Already, the fastest among the Cupiditas were falling through the carefully camouflaged coverings. “TRAPS!” he shouted again and began trying to angle off to the left so as to avoid the traps. None among the Cupiditas heeded his words, which had been uttered in Veritas, but some began to see that the bottom of the hill was indeed a trap. Just as ALT-R had tried to do, many began to try to veer away from the traps but some veered left and some veered right so that many simply impeded each other. ALT-R managed to barely avoid falling into one of these pits himself and as he glanced over his right shoulder he could see that the bottom of the traps had upward pointing sharpened bamboo poles which had impaled many of the Cupiditas. He ran still farther left into a thick copse of birch trees. He had to get out of this battle and take a moment to think. Think, he commanded himself.
The first thought that occurred to him was that victory was now far from certain. His second thought was that NUT-PI would likely discover that ALT-R had failed at his main job of leading the Cupiditas troops safely into the Center Place of the Veritas. If NUT-PI thought this was incompetence, he would die quickly. If NUT-PI thought it treachery, a more likely outcome, he had promised ALT-R a long, slow torturous death. ALT-R snuck carefully to the edge of the copse. He could see the small band of Veritas warriors had retreated to the Center Place. There was no sign of the other two forces that were supposed to converge on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the Cupiditas continued to pour down the hill. They seemed to be more able to avoid falling and tripping now and many were veering to left or right rather than straight ahead. The number falling into the pit seemed far fewer and some of those who did were running atop the piled bodies of their countrymen.
Once the nomads from the south and the fierce and formidable warriors of the north showed up, the Veritas would be overwhelmed. If ALT-R were able to accomplish his mission of capturing some spirited women for NUT-PI, he might still escape with his life. He wondered whether perhaps he should try to sneak into the Center Place before the main force but dismissed the idea as too dangerous. He concluded that he would observe from this location and wait for all three armies to converge. Then, there would be general chaos and he would have his best chance for capturing three women. Of course, there would also be more competition. ALT-R had been so preoccupied with trying to ensure that he successfully led the Cupiditas to the Center Place that he had only felt vaguely uncomfortable about fetching three Veritas women for NUT-PI. But now that he did have time, he realized that the third condition would be extremely difficult to achieve. ALT-R knew that he was not held in high esteem by the Cupiditas. One Arrow. He had no official position with the Cupiditas. Two Arrows. Any of the Veritas who might meet him would try to kill him on sight. Three Arrows. In fact, how could he capture three spirited women with no help from anyone? NUT-PI had intentionally given him a task that he would fail at! But why would he do that? ALT-R’s mind was racing ahead and he began to concentrate so hard that the chaos of the battle in front of him seemed no more consequential than clouds passing in the sky. He realized that NUT-PI not only didn’t trust him; he shouldn’t trust him because, after all, he was a traitor! No-one trusts me, he realized, perhaps for the first time, nor should they!
“THWANGGGGG!” ALT-R’s attention snapped back to current circumstances in a flash thanks to an arrow that embedded itself in the white-barked birch trunk only a few inches from his head. He peered out into the field and saw Cupiditas running in many directions but mainly toward the shallow creek while the Veritas warriors had seemed to retreat. But there were no fortifications. ALT-R couldn’t imagine why the Veritas warriors chose that unfortified position. But just then another arrow whacked into the tree near ALT-R’s kneecap. Where the hell were these arrows coming from? Not from the Veritas who had gone to guard the Center Place. ALT-R knew that he would have to join the fray to have any chance of gaining personally from this war. But then again, it would be risky to join in the fray when the outcome was still uncertain. And, what the hell is delaying the nomads of the south? Did POND MUD screw them up somehow? And, for that matter, why do I only see the blue & green of Veritas and the orange & red of the Cupiditas? Where is KAVA-NUT? And where the hell are the arrows coming from?
As ALT-R looked out, he realized finally that there must have been many more Veritas in these woods on both sides of the plain. They were targeting the brightly colored clothes of the Cupiditas. The Cupiditas preferred clubs, knives, and spears. However, the fraction who survived the downhill and traps had been focused on trying to attack the Center Place and it seemed to take a long time for them to realize that they were being attacked on both sides. Eventually, the still considerable throng somehow came to the mob realization that moving back and forth between the two rows and trees trying to flush the Veritas out was a losing proposition. Maybe this was the time to rejoin the fray. As the Cupiditas began to listen to their remaining captains, they began regrouping in a throng next to the near side of the river. The warriors on the outside deployed their shields. The hail of arrows had stopped, at least temporarily. ALT-R ran to the front of the group gesturing and shouting, “FOLLOW ME!”
Compared with the warriors of the Cupiditas, ALT-R’s body was much more rested and he was more lightly armed and armored. He was the first to reach the stream. ALT-R thought this dramatic move might just earn him enough respect to at least share in the bounty. His plan was to stop on the other side until a large contingent of Cupiditas could be there. He planned to pretend to lead the charge and direct people while slowly working has way back toward and then back across the river. An odd sense of deja vu overcame ALT-R as he splashed through the river toward the Center Place. Yet, he also had a sense of foreboding. Something was not right. Why was the river so narrow and shallow? Why were the Veritas being so stupid? They could easily be overwhelmed here. Just as he reached the far side, a loud rumbling, crashing noise like bubbling thunder began. He turned to see the throng of Cupiditas warriors wading across the river. They sprinted as best they could when they suddenly stopped as though suddenly stupefied. They turned as one upstream to see a wall of water heading their way. Suddenly, they were gone. ALT-R found himself alone with the Veritas warriors who were advancing on him with spears pointed toward him.
On the other side of the river, which had magically grown to a torrent, a few scattered Cupiditas warriors were running back toward the steep hill. They now avoided the traps, but climbing back up the hill proved difficult. Veritas archers deployed from the woods on both sides and began shooting arrows toward the fleeing warriors. In their desperate attempts to clamber back up the steep slope, many pushed or pulled on their compatriots. This ploy tended to make both soldiers slide farther back down the slope, only to become easier targets for the Veritas archers. Some few managed to escape to the relative safety of the hilltop and slid into the shadows of the forest. ALT-R saw howling wolves pursue them.
Among these Cupiditas survivors, only one remained faithful enough to NUT-PI to wend his way through the forests and find his way back to the hilltop where NUT-PI waited with a dozen heavily armed guards. The man’s name was UR-yapl-NA who had suffered a severely sprained ankle but was otherwise unharmed. NUT-PI hailed him and demanded that he ascend the knoll and report on progress. After struggling up the knoll, he knelt before NUT-PI and recounted as best he could the slippery hill, the archers, and the broad shallow stream that magically became a raging torrent that had swept away most of his remaining soldiers. Only ALT-R had arrived safely on the other side. When NUT-PI questioned him about the fierce and formidable warriors of the North and the nomads of the South, UR-yapl-NA answered that he had seen no such people on the battlefield.
NUT-PI sat silently for a long while and then gestured for his guards to behead the hapless messenger. NUT-PI then ordered his guards to gather up their supplies and they headed back to their own village. His sore heel no longer bothered him. He told the guards that it was their duty to now head back and protect their village. He walked in silence, bent on constructing a story filled with Cupiditas strength and courage and cunning that was unfortunately overcome through Veritas treachery and magic. In this narrative, he himself would be the main hero and all that stood between safety and an all-out decimation by marauding Veritas who would wipe out or enslave every last man, woman, and child among the Cupiditas. He became so obsessed with perfecting his story and mentally rehearsing it, that the failed to notice that his guards fell back ten then twenty paces and began whispering amongst themselves.
Meanwhile, back at the Center Place, ALT-R had surrendered himself to the Veritas warriors who had surrounded him in the Center Place. He had been stripped to search for hidden weapons and then thrown into a small cell in a heavily guarded stockade, not far from KAVA-NUT and POND MUD though ALT-R did not yet know this. When ALT-R had convinced himself that there was no possible escape from his prison cell, he sat on the hard earthen floor with his back against the log wall upon which sunlight provided some slight warmth. Over the next few hours, by overhearing shreds of random conversations of Veritas folk, he learned that the Cupiditas had been completely defeated; that POND MUD and KAVA-NUT had both been captured; that the promised help from the fierce and formidable foes of the North had never come. Nor had the nomads of the South joined in the fray. He wondered how he could get a message to KAVA-NUT and POND MUD and how they might escape. Would POND MUD and KAVA-NUT trust him? He thought not. In fact, he realized, no-one on this earth trusted him. No-one. He knew that he was no longer a welcome part of the great and varied people of the Veritas. He strongly suspected that he would not be welcome among the Cupiditas either, should any yet survive. They would blame him for leading them to their death and probably imagine he had done so on purpose. That was almost certainly what NUT-PI would think.
“No-one trusts a traitor.” He spoke these words aloud though he had not meant to. ALT-R cursed himself and beat the hard dirt with his fists. He had lived and schemed among the Cupiditas for only a short time but he realized that he hated being in league with them. Their way of putting greed and power over truth and cooperation was stupid. He realized that if everyone lied and manipulated the way he himself had done, the results were always doomed in the long run. If everyone were like ALT-R, there would be no camps. There would be no baskets, no learning, no hunting parties. We would all be beasts. We will be wolves without a pack, horses without a herd, bees without a hive. Truth builds us up together and lies tear us apart. How had he failed to see this, he wondered.
He lay exhausted on the hard dirt floor at last and began to drift off to sleep. In the distance, he heard the happy chanting, singing, and dancing feet of the Veritas. He could not make out the words but he nonetheless felt a strange comfort in the sound of his own language being sung so tunefully. And though the warmth of the flames of the central fire flicked far from his cell, he imagined the flames and thought of their warmth. He remembered staring into those flames as a youngster as he found some temporary peace in this, the Center Place of his dreams.