Shadow Walker quickly organized the search party. In addition to Shadow Walker, Eagle Eyes, Fleet of Foot, Easy Tears, Lion Slayer and Hudah Salah gathered their private traveling provisions. Easy Tears was put in charge of the two wolf pups while Eagle Eyes led the party due to her superior vision while Shadow Walker, the “leader” was the last of the group.
Eagle Eyes hardly needed great vision to follow the trail. (The raiders had obviously counted on speed rather than stealth to outdistance any possible pursuers.) However, Eagle Eyes quickly determined that there were only a dozen raiders. “It seems,” she said as they took a quick break to share a meal, “that they were only a small force who relied on surprise and speed to wreak havoc on the feast and then retreat quickly before we could counter-attack.”
Shadow Walker nodded. “We could have easily defeated such a small force! We should have attacked immediately!”
Lion Slayer spoke. “I am not so sure. I have never tried to fight a man who rides astride a horse! The horse is a strong creature and very fast. The man on horseback would be hard to hit while atop a horse, but it would be easy for the one on a horse to strike downward.”
Easy Tears looked skeptical. “You killed a lion, so they say, which is much more dangerous than a horse! How can you be afraid of a horse?”
Lion Slayer laughed. “I was very lucky to have two spears nearby to save Hudah from that lion! And, there were others nearby to help so that lion did not know which way to turn. It is likely that lion could have killed me easily despite my spears had I been alone. But do not underestimate the strength of horse. They can kill with a kick according to legend. And twelve of them together could trample a war party quickly.”
Eagle Eyes nodded slowly. “Yes, horses are built for speed, but they also look to have sensitive ears and their feet are weapons. A warrior on a horse’s back. That could be formidable. At least they are easy to track!”
Shadow Walker nodded. He looked over at Hudah Salah whose large, dark eyes were hard to read. “How about you, Hudah? Do you know anything about horses?”
She frowned slightly and silence grew. At last, she said, “Only as husband Lion Slayer has said.”
“Let us continue then. We have no idea how far they have taken Tu-Swift. He need to make haste or we will be known as Tu-Late.” No-one laughed at his grim humor.
Soon the sextet continued alternating a jogging pace with a fast walk through the forest with Eagle Eyes in the lead.
Fleet of Foot hung back for a time to be with Shadow Walker and whispered out of earshot of the others. “Shadow Walker, there is something you need to understand about the ways of the Nomads of the South. Hudah Salah will always defer to her husband, Lion Slayer. At least in public.”
Shadow Walker frowned and jerked his head. “Why? What do you mean? Is there something wrong with her?”
“No,” Shadow Walker, “that is just their way. All the women defer to their husbands.”
As the forest grew less dense, Shadow Walker lowered his voice still further.
“Really? Does she have a different opinion when you talk with her privately?”
Fleet of Foot snorted a laugh. “Oh, I have never spoken with her privately, nor do I intend to. And, I advise you not to try! That would be quite dangerous. The men are all quite jealous. I get the sense from Eagle Eyes that the women sometimes disagree with their husbands, but this is all just her surmise from a hesitation or fleeting look. Even to Eagle Eyes, she’s never said anything to overtly disagree.”
“That is truly odd. Can you imagine Many Paths never disagreeing? Or Eagle Eyes?” Shadow Walker chuckled.
They walked on awhile in silence. As the forest thinned to scrubby trees and tall grass, they began to ascend a gentle slope. They were out of sight of their compatriots in front, but the trail, to their trained eyes, shouted its direction.
“I can tell you that the Nomads of the South thought it remarkable that our leader is a woman.”
Shadow Walker frowned slightly. “Really? What did they say?”
Instead of answering, Fleet of Foot, asked, “Speaking of Many Paths, will you two become officially paired?”
“I don’t know. It’s complicated. She is new to her role as leader and…”
Just then, they heard excited howling up ahead and jogged carefully forward scanning for trouble and recalling how they had been ambushed at their own feast. Ambush here seemed unlikely as the cover was slim. Soon, they heard the voices of the others. They sounded excited, but not in danger. They ascended to the peak of the small hill and looked down below. The scrub land sloped downward to a wide river. Beyond it, there lay a much rockier land littered with gravel. The rest of their crew were examining a recent campsite. Once again, the invaders had made no attempt to cover their tracks. The wolf pups seemed excited as though they had caught the scent of Tu-Swift.
The six descended the plain, walking quickly but carefully, as much of the ground was littered with small stones that could easily turn the ankle of the unwary. At last they came to the bank of the river. Eagle Eyes began to wade in. To her, the water appeared moving, but not dangerous. The Veritas followed suit, but the Nomads from the South hung back on the shore. Fleet of Foot went back to them.
“Come on. The water’s cold, but I don’t think it will sweep you off your feet. But if it does, just keep swimming till you get across.”
Lion Slayer frowned, “You say simbling? Where is simbling?”
“Swimming! Swimming!” Fleet of Foot made motions with his hands.
Hudah Salah and her husband frowned and looked at each other. Eagle Eyes sighed. There had been no rivers at the central place of the Nomads of the South. They had drawn their water from wells. “So, do you know how to … how to crawl on the water?”
Lion Slayer looked more bewildered than ever. “Crawl? On water?”
Fleet of Foot cupped his hands and called out to Eagle Eyes who was emerging on the other side. “Come back! I think we will need to use rope to help them across. They don’t know anything about swimming.”
Eagle Eyes looked back at the three still on the shore. She searched her memory and realized they had not seen any swimming at the camps of the Nomads. She turned and strode back into the river. Swimming would not be needed. The water had barely reached above her waist. But the current was plenty strong, she reckoned and might indeed be frightening to those unaccustomed to so much water all at once.
She encouraged Shadow Walker and Easy Tears to turn back with her. When all six reconvened, she quickly tied a rope around the waist of each. “This will be safer for all of us. In case, the foot of anyone slips on a mossy rock, you will not fall. The others will hold you in place. Come. Now, we will be safe.” As she said this, she felt a sting of guilt. It’s true enough that it would be safer for the Nomads who apparently had no idea how to swim. But for the Veritas, the tethering ropes would make swimming more difficult, not easier. Still, there was no time for other solutions.
Off they went, and only Lion Slayer seemed to have difficulty keeping his footing. Three times he slipped, and three times, Shadow Walker and Fleet of Foot pulled on the rope and took his arms to keep him from falling. On the third time, the drums slipped off the shoulders of Fleet of Foot as he grabbed Lion Slayer. The drums raced far downstream and out of reach. Fleet of Foot sighed as they disappeared from sight. Without further incident, they all reached the other side, shivering in the late afternoon sun. Shadow Walker glanced at Hudah and could not help noticing that she looked much more fetching with her garments wetly clinging to her body. He pulled his eyes away, not wanting to offend the Nomads. Instead, he offered, “When we have found and returned Tu-Swift, we much teach you two to swim.”
Lion Slayer shivered violently. “Thanks you, but not. Too big water.” Shadow Walker considered waiting for a few hours while all their clothes dried in the sun. It might be interesting to see Hudah without clothes. However, it would take time. Furthermore, based on what Fleet of Foot had said, he strongly suspected that Lion Slayer would not take kindly to such a suggestion. “No need. Let’s jog as best we can, being careful of the rocks. We will warm up quickly.”
Fleet of Foot noticed that Eagle Eyes had gone on ahead and seemed to be examining a thick-leafed plant of some kind. She jogged back over to the group and spoke while she held out a small leaf. “This is aloe. This leaf has been broken. It’s used to treat burns. One of them was apparently burned…or perhaps it was for Tu-Swift. I do not know. But we should go. Follow me. I will take a path least likely to turn ankles.” Without another word, she jogged off. They all followed single file. Fleet of Foot jogged off next, followed by Hudah, Lion Slayer, Easy Tears and Shadow Walker.
Shadow Walker kept scanning in all directions for signs of danger, but also made sure he attended to where he placed his feet. He allowed himself a ray of hope. The most likely person to be burned was Tu-Swift. If they bothered to treat him with aloe, then it would mean he was still alive but also that they probably wanted him for some purpose other than simply killing him. But even if that were true, it can’t be a very good purpose. And, what did it mean that they made no attempt so far to cover their trail? Perhaps their camp was simply so large and well-guarded that they had no fear of reprisals.
As the sun began to set, the six found themselves jogging into a box canyon. There seemed to be no exit. Sheer rocks rose on every side. Yet, the horse tracks into the canyon remained unmistakable in the fading light, not just to Eagle Eyes but to everyone. The exhausted group made a cheering fire between one of the cliff walls and a large nearby rock.
Shadow Walker shared his musings with the group. They nodded but could offer nothing additional. Eyes of Eagle spoke next, “I have reviewed in my mind all the signs I saw and followed. I see nothing and feel nothing of a false trail. I see no way that they could have backtracked without it’s being noticed. A single person, with careful steps, may walk backwards in their own tracks. But a horse? A dozen horses? I see no way that they did not come here. But then what?”
At last, Lion Slayer spoke. “Near our lands, but much farther south, there be places of pure sand. Some people venturing into those lands have disappeared. Such sand can swallow a person. Those lands are not like this land. Even in the land of all sand, a dozen horses and a dozen people? Surely, when first such disappeared, others would turn back, would they not?”
Shadow Walker asked them to consider and dream of other times when things appeared impossible. “It is dark. In the light of morning, we will search more carefully. We will solve this puzzle. We will find Tu-Swift. Now, let our bodies rest and recover.”