The next morning, Many Paths awoke early. As she peeked outside, she could see that a heavy fog hung about the river. The sun itself appeared as nothing more than a gray disk. Many Paths sighed and briefly shivered as she arose and trod slowly to the river. She liked to stand and watch the flow of the water. She found it calming.
She thought of Shadow Walker and yet again; she drew out from a small pouch, the Sixth Ring of Empathy, the last that she and Shadow Walker shared. She tried to recall when she and then the rest of the Veritas had begun calling him “Shadow Walker” rather than “Shade Walker.” It was odd, she mused. Most names became shorter over time. “Shadow” she supposed, was more precise. Specific things had shadows. But you could be in shade from many trees at the same time. You would not know which tree had caused which shadow. She still felt strongly that he was alive but she had no proof.
Still clutching the Sixth Ring of Empathy, she began to reflect on last evening’s Dialogue and consider how things might go tonight. Perhaps she thought, we should finish the mock Killing Sticks and give people a few days to live with them before we explore them further. Even though a mock Killing Stick would not be like having a real one, she still thought it would offer more insight. They knew so little! Yet, time might not be on their side. Suppose Eagle Eyes & Lion Slayer had been tracked? Many warriors with such killing sticks could arrive to destroy or enslave the Veritas at any time.
If they all made the noise described by Eagle Eyes and confirmed by Lion Slayer, they should hear the use of such Killing Sticks in time to prepare for an attack. She needed to prepare the people. They could not be caught unawares as they had when they were attacked before and Tu-Swift had been taken. It still puzzled her that they had stolen Tu-Swift. She heard the caw of crows and turned in that direction. A large man was walking through the mist toward her. She hoped it could be Shadow Walker. As he loomed closer, she saw instead that it was Trunk of Tree. Though nothing more than a shadow in the fog, she could tell from the way he moved and his general outline that it was not her love, but this friend, this excellent warrior, this man who had lately grown problematic. Why was he seeking her out so early in the morning?
“Good morning, Many Paths. It is I, Trunk of Tree. I woke early to check on our guard posts.”
“Good morning to you, Trunk of Tree. Thank you. How are the guards?”
“They are well. No sign of trouble. Nor did I catch any sleeping at their posts. I wish I could give each of the guards one of those Killing Sticks! But I did not come to speak of Killing Sticks — though they are much on my mind.”
“They are much on my mind as well. We must all think on such a thing and dialogue again. So, what did you want to speak about?”
Now, Trunk of Tree strode up next to Many Paths. He looked at her intently. “If I may speak frankly, I think we must accept the sad news that Tu-Swift and Shadow Walker are gone. I mean, they are not coming back. It is sad for all of us. But we must accept reality and move forward to protect the people from these Z-Lotz and ROI. Most especially because of what we have learned about the Killing Sticks.”
Many Paths sighed. “Do you see the sun?”
Trunk of Tree frowned. “Do I see the sun? Well, I — yes, I can see it, though it lay yet well hidden by the fog. What…?”
“Do you think it will be hidden in this way when it is high overhead?”
“No. I think the day will be clear, and it will be hot and yellow. In fact, we won’t even have to wait. Another little while and it will be shining brightly. It’s not a cloudy day. Just this morning fog obscures it. But what has this to do with Killing Sticks?”
“It has much to do with Shadow Walker. He too is hidden from our sight by the fog of time and distance. Yet, I believe him to be very much alive. We are connected. Actually, we are all connected, but I especially feel a connection to him and I tell you that at this moment, he is alive. Whether he and Tu-Swift can return safely, I cannot foresee just as we cannot yet see the shining sun.”
Trunk of Tree shook his head back and forth slightly. It seemed to him impossible to have a frank and straightforward conversation with this woman. He grimaced and chewed his lips, searching for another path. In this, he lacked the easy skill of Many Paths. Yet, he continued. “I suppose it is possible he is alive somewhere, captured, enslaved, injured. Perhaps he has joined with the Z-Lotz. He is a proud and ambitious man and … “
At this, Many Paths broke into happy laughter. “No, Trunk of Tree, you — trust me, he is many things. He has skills. You have skills. But he is not as you say, a proud and ambitious man. That describes you, not him. What do you wish to say?”
“The tribe needs unified leadership. I propose that you and I join forces to provide that unified leadership. We cannot face an enemy that possesses Killing Sticks when we are divided. I propose that you and I marry. I know you still like Shadow Walker as I still like Eagle Eyes, but we must think of the tribe, not just ourselves. Join with me. With my strength leading and your wisdom as support, we will mount an attack on the Z-Lotz and take all their Killing Sticks. It is this which I see as the only sure way for the Veritas to survive. And thrive.” Trunk of Tree surprised himself at how well he had put forth his argument. Surely, she would see the sense of his position, now he thought.
Many Paths stared at Trunk of Tree. “Who among the Veritas do you know to be my closest friends, apart from Tu-Swift and Shadow Walker?”
“Who do I suppose… ? What? I have no idea. How would I know? I never thought about it. What does that — ?”
Many Paths intensified her gaze. “Think about it now. Take a moment. I’ll wait.”
“I suppose She Who Saves Many Lives. You talk much with her and she gave you all the Rings of Empathy. Did I guess right, Many Paths?”
“That is one of two. Yes. And, do you think it accurate to say she gave me the Rings of Empathy? Is that what you think? Were you and I and all the others not given the same tests? Am I not the only one who passed all the tests? What say you, Trunk of Tree?” Many Paths tightened her lips and furrowed her brow. She began to second-guess herself. Perhaps she had taken bait for an irrelevant conversation.
“I — I don’t know. I suppose. But She Who Saves Many Lives is clever. She may have wanted you to be her successor all along. But the point is that the people now need a strong leader. It is more important than ever. We can together offer that strong leadership. You are wise, but on your own, you have a tendency — you don’t always act even when the path is clear.”
Many Paths felt like screaming at him that leadership was already united save for his attempts to undermine it. She wanted to scream that he had been completely inept in trying to gain support for his style of leadership. Most of all, she wanted to scream at him that she would never marry him and that she loved Shadow Walker.
Instead, Many Paths pleasantly said, “Let’s skip some stones.”
“Skip stones? Why? We are having a serious discussion about the future of the tribe! Anyway, I can skip stones much farther than you. It’s obvious. What’s the point?” Trunk of Tree ground his teeth. But he bent down, took up a large oval stone that happened to lay at his feet and flung it into the river. It felt good to release some of his anger. He saw the stone skip five times before plunging at last into the rapids in the middle of the river. He grinned at Many Paths. “Can we now return to my proposal?”
Many Paths searched the ground. She picked up a flat stone. Then another. And another. And another. She looked carefully at the stones; hefted them one by one. She put them down beside her and whirled her arm about her. She stretched her arms carefully. She picked up one of the stones and walked to a place where the ground felt firm beneath her feet.
At last, Trunk of Tree could stand it no longer, “What are you doing?”
Many Paths briefly glanced at Trunk of Tree and smiled. Then she took her stone and turned it about in her palm. She looked out at the river, noticing the parts of the river that flowed calmly and those that jumped and churned with turbulence. Then, she turned the trunk of her body nearly parallel with the earth and whipped her arm with surprising speed. The rock skipped across the river hitting the surface eleven times before landing on the far bank. She turned back to Trunk of Tree and smiled. “Thanks for indulging me, Trunk of Tree. Thanks for your patience. I am quite aware that these Killing Sticks pose a threat to our tribe, perhaps even to our very existence. That is why I really need you to do me a favor. You are a good warrior and a good general. I need you to prepare a contingency plan of what to do should we hear Killing Sticks. I do not want to be caught unaware as we were at our Feast that turned to Fire. Could you take on that important responsibility? For me, for the Tribe, and for my best friend, Eagle Eyes?”
Trunk of Tree stared at her, momentarily tongue-tied. “How did you throw your rock farther?”
“What? Oh. That. I was just illustrating how important careful preparation is. To remind us both how important your plans will be. Just as in the Battle of the Three Forks. This time, we must be even more prepared. This may be the most important task for the survival of the Veritas, at least until we learn more. Perhaps you can enlist the aid of the woman who loves you, my best friend, Eagle Eyes. She was invaluable in our preparations for the Battle of the Three Forks. Working together may help overcome some of the understandable awkwardness that has temporarily grown between you. I need to confer with her for the morning on the making of the mock Killing Sticks. After that, she’s all yours for the next few days. To help with the plans.”
Trunk of Tree had much more to say, but Many Paths turned away and walked back toward the Center Place of the Veritas. She disappeared into the fog before he could utter a word. He stood for a moment staring at the rushing water. He shook his head and began thinking about how one might prepare against something so dreadful as a numerous tribe with Killing Sticks.
Soon, the sun dissipated the fog and Many Paths found Eagle Eyes at work making drawings of the Killing Sticks. She noted that there was a special place near the center where Nut-Pi had pressed to waken the Killing Stick. It was a bulge near the middle of the stick. Stone Chipper had gathered several appropriate sticks as well as three more among the tribe whose skills included carving. She walked over to compliment the group on their progress when she heard drums of the Veritas from afar. They announced the coming of people. With horses! Her heart quickened! The People Who Stand on Horses had returned! No. No. They were not, the drums said, standing on the horses, but beside them. Strangers, but without weapons. Who were these people? The drums said, Tu-Swift! The drums said, Shadow Walker! Eagle Eyes jumped up and embraced Many Paths. The eyes of Many Paths filled with tears and she ran toward the drums. Eagle Eyes and the party of carvers followed close behind her.
She ran along the path that ran into the deep woods and out into a clearing beyond. She could see a group of people and horses atop a small knoll descending toward her. She sprinted even faster as she approached. The group with the horses kept moving slowly toward her. At last, she could make out the form of Shadow Walker jogging toward her. He seemed to be limping slightly. That would pass. Behind she could make out Tu-Swift who also appeared to be limping. She flung herself wantonly into the arms of Shadow Walker who reacher her first. The held each other fiercely as she kissed his face over and over, relishing the smell of him and the salty taste of his sweat. This moment at last had come and she wanted to relish it forever. Shadow Walker began to speak but she silenced him with kisses until Tu-Swift drew near and then she released one arm to draw him to her as well. The three of them held each other tight. Whatever else the coming days might bring, Many Paths felt that they could find — must find a way to survive those days, Killing Sticks or no Killing Sticks, spreading death or no spreading death. They would survive and the Veritas would survive, must survive. She had no idea yet of the discovery this little party had brought to the Center Place of the Veritas. In fact, even the members of that little party yet understood the full importance of the discovery they had brought with them. It would prove even more important than Killing Sticks.
Have a wonderful New Year!!
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