The search party followed the obvious signs of the horses. Eagle Eyes and Fleet of Foot took the lead. Just as they approached a considerable foothill covered mainly in weeds and scrub oak, Fleet of Foot noticed that Eagle Eyes glanced ahead and shook her head. Fleet of Foot queried her. “What does your head shaking signify, Eagle Eyes?”
Eagle Eyes laughed slightly. “I cannot fathom how they can be so bad at hiding their trail. How can they be smart enough to train horses and yet too stupid to cover their own trail?”
Fleet of Foot paused in his long, loping strides. “Indeed. Unless it is a trap. It is very much as though they actually want us to be able to follow their trail.” He held up his hand and they all stopped before ascending the hill in order to parley briefly.
Lion Slayer and Hudah Salah came up to the scouts and Lion Slayer asked quietly, “What’s up? Did you lose the trail? No, I can see you didn’t.”
Eagle Eyes spoke next. “That’s just it. This trail is so easy to follow, we again worry that we may be following the trail into a trap of some kind. I know we all hurry to save Tu-Swift, but it won’t help him much if we are all captured!”
Shadow Walker sensed the group worry of facing an uncertain enemy. Each of them, even their banquet guests, felt urgency to find Tu-Swift as quickly as possible, even knowing that he might have been killed days ago. He scanned the land ahead.
“You are right to be cautious. A people who stand on horses and steal children are difficult to understand. Now, we also learn from our friends from the South that such people lie as a way of life, pretending to something they do not really believe to gain material benefit. Also, we see from our own eyes and fingertips and ears that they have some kind of hard, dead rock that they have fashioned to their own purposes. Who knows what other tricks they may have. Still, the trail is clear for now. Let us ascend this hill at least and before we attain the summit, before we may be clearly seen to stick out among the brush, we will stop again and plan our next steps. There is insufficient cover for a large party to ambush us. The pups seem to sense no danger either but are eager to continue. I still suspect, but do not know, that these people rely on speed more than stealth. Perhaps they judge that it takes too long to cover their trail. Covering the trail of trained warriors is one thing. Covering the trail of our huge four legged cousins might be too difficult and time-consuming. It would diminish their advantage of speed.”
After a silence, they all nodded their agreement and the group again spread out and ascended to just below the hill crest without further discussion. They reached a pleasant spot near a bent oak. Eagle Eyes crept alone to the brim of the hill, being careful to move only when the wind moved the grasses and weeds. She crawled back after a time to report on what she had seen.
“I think we are close! The trail continues just as obvious as ever. The other side of this hill is much like the side we already know. At the end of the downslope there is another stream to ford. It appears that there is a broad road down there. On the far side of the stream, I see the smoke of several fires rising among the fir trees. Of course, I do not know what lies further beyond, but it appears we are close to at least one of their villages. Yet, I see no sign of lookouts.”
Shadow Walker considered this as everyone seemed to look at him for a plan. “You do have amazing sight, Eagle Eyes. Though the child stealers do not care about their trail, we now much proceed with some caution. Rather than come up over the crest of the hill, where we could easily be seen, I think we should descend on this side and wait until cover of dark and very carefully ford the stream to scout out their camp without being seen or heard. We should go in our three pairs, see what we see, and return to this place to further plan with our new knowledge. Does that seem a good plan?”
The group looked at each other, but no-one had a better plan and they all nodded. When the moon rose, they began to pick their way down the leeward side of the hill. Privately, Shadow Walker had been a bit concerned as to whether the Nomads of the South could tread silently but he quickly realized that they were every bit as stealthy as the Veritas themselves.
Soon, they were all at the edge of the icy river. Each braced themselves for the cold shock so as not to gasp aloud. The river proved easy to ford and on the far side they split up into pairs, cautiously and slowly approaching the camp though none could see a sign of any guards.
Shadow Walker and Easy Tears crept around the eastern side of the encampment, giving a wide berth. The ROI, if that’s what they were, seemed singularly inactive at night. They heard no dancing, drumming, or singing. At they worked their way further north, Shadow Walker heard the noise of horses. He made a gesture to signify the animals with his fingers and Easy Tears nodded. Shadow Walker recalled that once, long ago, he had played with a very young Tu-Swift making the shapes of all manner of creatures with their hands while mimicking their sounds as well. He felt his love for Tu-Swift and, for a moment, wanted to scream his name out in the night. But such foolishness, he knew, could mean death for them all, including Tu-Swift. At last, they came quite close to a large fenced in space where many horses milled about and nickered nervously. The human duo hid behind a large, nearby stack of split wooden logs.
Shadow Walker peered again at the horses and frowned. Something was not right about these horses. Although their main task was to free Tu-Swift, he also wished to know more about these horses. Putting his head close to the ground, he spied around the wood pile at the horses. He frowned. He could see that they were tethered leg to leg and foot to foot so that they could not really run free but only walk slowly from place to place. Shadow Walker grimaced. It felt unnatural and anti-life to him to tether a creature with such an obvious love of speed and freedom. Apparently, the horses did not much care for such tethering either for several of them were attempting to chew through these ropes or vines that ligated their legs. He watched the horses but learned little more.
He looked over at Easy Tears and noticed how beautiful her skin looked in the glow of the moon. He thought then of Many Paths and wished once again that they had had time to talk of whether they should marry. He smiled as he recalled the first time he had felt true love for her beyond his strong desire. It had happened when she was describing what she had learned about the wolves. He had listened to her words and felt beyond her words to her imagination, her cunning, her careful observation, her empathy and even love for the wolves.
He wished that he could have her advice right now along with the gentle touch of her hand. He looked at his own rings of empathy and remembered their trials. He took off the First Ring of Empathy, with its odd double-vision crystal and took it between forefinger and thumb and turned it in the moonlight. Easy Tears noticed and smiled at him.
He looked at the face of Easy Tears. She said nothing, but he distinctly heard the voice of Many Paths say, “Drums” as clearly as though she had been right beside him. He looked again at Easy Tears but she had not spoken. He was sure of it. And, the clear and gentle voice he had heard was definitely that of Many Paths, not Easy Tears.
Shadow Walker shook his head. He was probably tired from the long journey and the lack of sleep. Perhaps they should be turning back to rejoin the others. Who knew how late these people awoke, these stealers of children. Again, he heard Many Paths speak the word “Drums” quite clearly and distinctly. He shook his head at his own foolishness and recalled the time that they had used drums to communicate with Pond Mud among the …
Shadow Walker returned the ring to the ring finger of his left hand.
“Drums!” he whispered aloud. Easy Tears turned to him and frowned, thinking it odd he had broken protocol to speak, even in a whisper, so deep inside an enemy camp.