Though the Veritas were at high feast and had no known enemies, they reacted with amazing speed and fluid preparedness. They radiated out to previously staked out positions across the stream, opposite the direction of the arrows. Shadow Walker and Fleet of Foot ran with Many Paths. Once under cover, they turned back to assess the situation.
Many Paths tracked the flaming arrows still streaming into the Center Place. Her thoughts raced. Who was this enemy that attacked without warning? What had happened to the Veritas guards? Which pre-planned counter-attack should be mounted? Many Paths felt a hand upon her shoulder. It was Fleet of Foot. He pointed to a small herd of horses speeding up the hill on the other side. But…Many Paths stared. These horses had people astride them! For a moment it seemed impossible. Yet, here it was, clearly visible for a moment before the horses and their companions disappeared into the forest. The arrows stopped flying. People and horses running as one? It was all happening too fast for her to decide what to do. She glanced at Fleet of Foot and spoke in a low voice. “A double flanking counter-attack?”
Fleet of Foot nodded and barked a few short “commands” which were not words but the whistles of birds. The Veritas now streamed out from cover with weapons drawn and bows drawn, ready to overwhelm their enemy. Yet, no such enemy appeared. Those Veritas with the youngest and keenest ears could hear the distant muffled hoofbeats of horses in the wooded hills but no target could be discerned. The arrows were burning out and had not caused any serious or widespread damage.
Many Paths quickly convened a war council. Shadow Walker quickly volunteered to lead a tracking party into the woods to determine the origin of this unseen enemy. Fleet of Foot and several other braves agreed to join including their visitors from the Nomads of the South. Many Paths knew that Tu-Swift would also volunteer but she judged that he was not quite ready for such a dangerous adventure. The arguments were forming on her lips but no such request came. She moved on to other matters at hand.
She turned to Eagle Eyes. “I have trained wolves and you have trained hawks and eagles. Have you imagined to train horses as well?”
“No, I mean, they are so large and fast and strong. How could one convince such an animal to serve a human? Yet, so too the eagle could easily fly away yet chooses to stay and befriend me. So, perhaps it is possible. I could try. I would have to think on that. It would take time. It takes time. It is all happening too quickly.”
Many Paths nodded. “Indeed, it all happened too swiftly for me to….” Many Paths broke off her speech and scanned the larger crowd of Veritas who were repairing the feast, putting out small fires, and fetching weapons and provisions for the tracking party. She swallowed hard as panic began to dry her mouth so badly she found it hard to speak loudly.
“Tu-Swift! TU-SWIFT!! Where is Tu-Swift?” Her council looked about them. Shadow Walker leapt on top of a small log pile and yelled, “Has anyone seen Tu-Swift?” The people paused in their tasks, looking about them. They muttered questions at each other and shook their heads. No-one had seen Tu-Swift since the feast had been interrupted.
Many Paths breathed deeply to calm herself. The Veritas were looking to her and she needed to keep a cool head. She looked to She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives and their eyes locked. The old shaman shook her head imperceptibly. Many Paths understood her meaning — that Many Paths was now the leader and it was up to her to decide what to do. Many Paths nodded back. Again panic almost overtook her as she imagined Tu-Swift injured or dead. Into her mind, unbidden, the image of the death of her parents came to mind. She pushed all this aside and strode over to the table where she had last seen Tu-Swift, dreading to find his lifeless body under the table.
“I can’t see! I can’t see!”
Mentally, Tu-Swift screamed, but he was, in fact, unable to manage more than a muffled grumble. He felt the cloth, tight across his mouth and the dark cloth around his head. He could not imagine what was happening. He felt his body bouncing up and down. Perhaps he had fallen into the rapids, he thought, and the rocks and frothing water tossed his body about like a fluttering leaf. But he didn’t feel wet. Fighting to stay coherent, he tried to organize his thoughts. Inventory. Inventory. An image of Many Paths playing a game with him flashed into his mind. She had explained that, even in confusion, one could use various tricks to stay calm. One was to take inventory. What did he know and what did he sense?
He began at the top. The back of his head pained him. He could hear. He could see as well, though not well. The world continued to bounce but it was cloth tight around his head that made it difficult to see. He heard pounding all around him. He smelled pine and dirt and horses. His wrists hurt and so did his ankles. He tried to move them but found them tightly bound. The pounding sound, he recognized. And people were talking, but not in the tongue of the Veritas. He tried to recall the snippets of other languages he had heard. This speech didn’t sound like Cupiditas, or the speech of the Southern Nomads nor yet of the Fierce Fighters of the North.
What did he remember? There had been a race. He had raced Many Paths to the Center Place where they were about to have a feast. Had he won the race? He couldn’t recall. Wait! He had turned and run straight into a sapling. It must have knocked him out. No, that wasn’t a hard enough blow. The sapling had sprung him backwards. It had mainly hit his chest, not the back of his head which now throbbed with every bounce. Had he fallen backwards and hit his head? Maybe, but how would that make him tied up? And bouncing? Inventory. Inventory. Tu-Swift tried to sort it out, but nothing made sense and he drifted out of consciousness again.
Many-Paths thought she had been fearing the worst: to see the lifeless body of her brother. But when she saw instead, the obvious signs that he had been dragged away, she found that, this was even worse than the worst. If her brother had died, of course, that was cause for grief. But no-one is brought back from the dead. Her journey would be a trail of tears, but it was a single path. Her only strategic choice for the tribe would be whether or not to pursue revenge for her own private motive. It would be easy, she knew, to slide from one issue to the other. She might hate the people who killed her brother and want them all dead, even though this might (or might not) be disastrous for the tribe. They didn’t really know enough about this enemy right now to decide the best course of action. But she could argue and support those who argued that this enemy was dangerous and deadly; that they needed to be weeded out now or they could keep striking like this over and over. There was certainly that possibility. But Many Paths knew that misleading the tribe in even the smallest degree would be the worst possible thing that a leader could do. She would be able, she knew, to fight and win the battle of that temptation.
But now, Many Paths was faced with a far more painful path, and a far less certain one. What to do? What was best for Tu-Swift? What was best for everyone? Should they invade, negotiate, run. Determining the best course of action for her own selfish motives would be difficult and complex. Determining the best course of action for her tribe would also be difficult and complex. Trying to disentangle the two so that she could do what was best for the tribe would be more difficult still. She never once doubted whether this was the proper course of action, but she did doubt her ability to do all that. Perhaps she should relinquish leadership to another. She at least knew that she needed the counsel of She Who Saves Many Lives.
Many Paths turned to walk to to the cabin of She Who Saves Many Lives and there she was and she spoke immediately, “You will do the right thing, Many Paths. You will do the right thing. Listen to the heart of your heart and you will know. It is okay to share everything with others to get their input, of course. I know you to be a listener. Go and lead our people. Go.”
“What kind of a people would tear a child from their family?” Many Paths asked.
“Indeed,” said She Who Saves Many Lives, “that is the central question. What kind of a people would tear a child away from their family? And, what will we do about it? No, Go and lead the people.”