Many Paths awoke smiling. A soft pink and golden glow suffused her cabin. She relished the warmth beneath her blankets. She lay for a moment enjoying the distant happy sounds of her tribe and the many chirping birds. She thought of the legend that long ago the people had learned to speak by mimicking the sounds of the fields and forests. Each time she listened to the birds, her conviction grew that the various kinds of birds spoke to each other, not only to those of their own kind. Indeed, they did this both at dawn’s first light and in the evening. Of course, they hid and stayed silent during storms, but in fine weather such as this, they also held dialogue just as the Veritas themselves had done the night before.
Soon, she would check on plans for making major paths to the Center Place of the Veritas less accessible to horses or those upon them. But for a moment, she relished the image of Shadow Walker, tall and handsome. She smiled again as she recalled the many trials that she and Shadow Walker had faced. Her love for him first blossomed as he explained his observations about snakes. She chuckled. Now, that takes some empathy! She wondered whether she could ever love snakes as much as she loved the wolves. She again toyed with the First Ring of Empathy. Every time she did so, she felt an even stronger connection to Shadow Walker. Perhaps these rings held magic as yet undiscovered.
A knock interrupted her reverie. “Good morning?” someone queried.
She recognized the surprisingly soft voice of Trunk of Tree. Many Paths wrapped a blanket about herself and padded to the door. There stood Trunk of Tree, his thick, well-muscled thighs were bare from the edge of his smock to his moccasins. There was a delightful twinkle in his eye. “Trunk of Tree. I hope you are well this day.”
“I am indeed, Many Paths. I hope you are also well. I am sorry if I awoke you. I wanted to let you know that we have modified the cool path to make it impassible for those who would stand atop horses.”
“What? When? Did you work all night?”
“No, Many Paths, but we arose at first light. For we do not know when another such attack may come. Or, it might happen that our search party will return with those who stand atop horses in pursuit. In any case….” Trunk of Tree looked at Many Paths and, not for the first time, noticed how deeply and wisely her dark eyes sparkled.
After a pause, Many Paths smiled and prompted, “In any case…?”
“Oh, sorry. In any case.” Trunk of Tree blushed as he realized how much he loved to hear the voice of Many Paths — so much so that it was hard to listen to the words and find their meanings. He found himself wondering whether she and Shadow Walker really had betrothed as everyone supposed. And, what if Shadow Walker did not return? He banished that thought as soon as it arose. Shadow Walker was Trunk of Tree’s best friend and had gladly ventured out to find Tu-Swift despite the danger. Now, Trunk of Tree found himself lusting after Many Paths. He must not feed the bad wolf. “In any case…” he began again, “as we were making the cool path between the cliffs impassible, Stone Chipper suggested another adjustment that would be hospitable to those on foot but make travel difficult for those who sit atop horses.”
“Yes? Go on.” She looked kindly at Trunk of Tree, but, she hoped, not too kindly.
“We wish to modify the path along the far side of the North River so that it would encourage any on horses to ford at the lower path rather than the upper path. This should look as though it’s a better road, but then, it will end at the bog near the field of flowers. The Veritas know how to leap from one grassy mound to the next, but we imagine such will prove impossible for anyone who stands atop a horse. None of us has seen a horse run there. Nor deer, nor elk. They only go very slowly in such a circumstance. We would love you. I mean, we would love you to think upon whether this is a good idea.” Trunk of Tree stared at Many Paths as the rising sun now strayed a golden ray upon the dark hair of Many Paths lighting it up like a special kind of sparkling rainbow.
Many Paths smiled at Trunk of Tree. “It sounds good. We must think about this together. How will it affect others of the Veritas and how will it affect other creatures, large and small? In any case, I need to attend now to my own needs for a short time. Then, I will ask She Who Saves Many Lives about your plan.”
Trunk of Tree softened his deep voice and said, “You are the Leader now, Many Paths.”
“I am indeed, Trunk of Tree. But She Who Saves Many Lives has seen far more summers, and far more winters than I. What kind of a foolish leader would not to seek the counsel of those whose experience is greater? Such a person as that would not be a leader at all. The wise leader would seek wisdom from the great tree of life, our ancestors, our legends, our leaders, and even the children, but in this matter, I will definitely seek the wisdom of She Who Saves Many Lives.” She smiled that smile that Trunk of Tree considered as great a miracle as a rainbow.
“You are wise, as always, Many Paths.”
Many Paths answered, “I will always strive to be wise, but I know I cannot foresee all consequences.” She paused, then added, “I will travel presently to this place and meet you there so we may consider your plan. And, I would also like to see your work on the cool path between the cliffs as well if you would be so kind as to accompany me. Shall we meet at the North River pass about when Sun is here?”
Many Paths raised her arm and pointed up at a slight angle.
In a short time, after consulting with She Who Saves Many Lives, Many Paths began walking to the North River. As she walked, she begin thinking about Trunk of Tree. His strength and beautiful physique, it seemed to Many Paths, somehow encouraged people to overlook his intelligence and creativity. As she neared the bog, she recalled how Trunk of Tree had once told her of being attacked near here by a red-winged blackbird! He had been wearing a red mask which apparently fooled the red-winged male into thinking that Trunk of Tree was a rival! Many Paths had heard stories of humans as well who had fought each other over mates. Would Shadow Walker show such a jealous rage?
Many Paths noticed a nice and thriving crop of yellow dock along the path so she harvested some leaving enough to reseed itself. It would require a first boiling to remove something not good from the good and then add a bit to her stew for tonight but save most of it for drying. It formed part of the wound poultice that She Who Saves Many Lives had shown her many moons ago.
As she had thought back to her childhood conversations with the elder shaman, Many Paths had come to realize that what had seemed friendly chit-chat at the time was already the beginning of an assessment that led She Who Saves Many Lives to choose her original twelve acolytes from among the youngsters of the tribe. And that meant, she supposed, when the current crisis was over, she too should begin the long process of choosing her successor. Or, perhaps a crisis was just such a time as to observe how various young ones of the tribe reacted. She thought of Horse Viewer, as he was now known, and, then, all at once, the image of Tu-Swift came to her and pulled at her heart, causing a single tear to creep down her cheek.
“Thanks for coming, Many Paths” the gentle voice of Trunk of Tree began.
“Greetings, Trunk of Tree. Show me first about the path you plan to make into the bog.”
“Certainly, Many Paths. Are you all right? Are you crying?” asked Trunk of Tree with genuine concern.
“I am all right. I am worried about Tu-Swift. But worrying is a waste of time. Let us make arrangements to make sure no more children are stolen. Hopefully, Tu-Swift will some day return to tell us of his adventures. I wish Eagle Eyes or even Easy Tears were here to help you make such alterations look natural.”
“I am sorry about Tu-Swift, Many Paths. I am sure he will be … I hope he will return shortly and unharmed. Take my hand, and I will remind you of the path through the bog.”
“Thank you, Trunk of Tree, but I think I can see such paths and trying to hold hands…holding hands will only complicate my path. You understand?”
Trunk of Tree swallowed. Now was as good a time as any. He tried to sound casual. “Many Paths, I need to ask you frankly. Are you and Shadow Walker betrothed?”
“Ah, that is an interesting question. We love each other. Of that we have no doubt. But with all that is going on… you see, we had decided to have a long and difficult conversation after the Feast of Bell-Tane. And, then…after the attack… We have not had a chance.”
“If you really love each other, then what is there to discuss?” asked Trunk of Tree.
“Having Tu-Swift stolen from me makes being leader much more difficult for me. Imagine if I had a child. Or two. Or three. That is serious business. I would really need the whole tribe to help. And, now is not the time to ask that. Anyway, let us discuss all that later. Show me about the path to the bog,” Trunk of Tree.
“Indeed, I shall.” Trunk of Tree bit his lip. “I only ask because. Because I too fancy you.”
“Ah. Well, yes, I realize that. I find you attractive as well, but we must put all that aside until after these strange people who steal other people’s children have been dealt with. Otherwise, how could I be happy to have your baby? Or anyone’s?”
“Many Paths, as usual, you are wise, but I must tell you. I wish… We could pleasure each other without having babies.”
“Trunk of Tree, you are pleasing to my sight, but don’t you see how the eagles mate for life? I am thinking first of Shadow Walker.”
“True, but many animals do not mate for life as you well know. They seem to mate at every opportunity! And, after all your name is ‘Many Paths’ not ‘One Path.”
Many Paths laughed. “Nice try, Trunk of Tree, but I seek to think about many paths in order to choose one to walk. I do not seek to walk many paths all at once without thinking about any of them!”
“So, Trunk of Tree, let us please get to our task at hand which is for the future of the tribe, not just for our personal and momentary pleasure. If we avoid, destroy, or make peace with those who steal children, everyone will have more pleasure for many years, not just this day and not just us. I ask you again to show me your plan.”