Many Paths awoke early. The fragments of a dark dream hung about her. Tu-Swift! “Tu-Swift!” she called loudly.
Her urgency startled Tu-Swift who jumped up suddenly saying, “What? What? What’s wrong?”
Many Paths blinked and saw Tu-Swift standing and staring at her. “Sorry. I must have had a bad dream that you were gone again.”
Tu-Swift shook his head. “No, I’m still here. You scared me.”
Many Paths took in a deep calming breath and let it out slowly. “I’m sorry. I … I am glad you’re back, brother. It takes my mind a time to really believe it.”
Tu-Swift nodded. “Yes. Sometimes I wake up and imagine I’m back in that wooden shack again in the village of the ROI. But I am here. I am safe. At least for now.”
“For now. Yes, for now. I worry about the Killing Sticks though.” Many Paths took another large breath and added, “If there were no Killing Sticks, I would be spending all my energy trying to understand your discovery — and trying to connect with our brothers and sisters near the Twin Peaks. It seems that Jaccim may be able to lead us to the Veritas. But what do you think of him? Is the to be trusted?”
“Shadow Walker was also concerned. I don’t know. I remember ALT-R and POND MUD. ALT-R in particular spoke very smoothly and I would have believed him. Yet, he was corrupt. He even betrayed us to NUT-PI, the man with the Killing Stick. Perhaps I am not such a good judge of character.”
“ALT-R fooled many people of more summers that you, Tu-Swift. There’s no shame in that. Even She Who Saves Many Lives did not see the full evil of his heart. Nor I. But what of Jaccim? He is the only one among us who claims to know how to reach the tribe of the Veritas who live beyond the Twin Peaks.”
“I trust him. I should say that I trust him here among us. And I trust him to lead the search party as he is best able. I don’t know what he would do if the ROI came here though. Maybe he would join them. You should talk with him yourself, Many Paths. You’re good at seeing the heart in someone.”
“Thank you and I shall. I’m not so sure how good I am though. ALT-R and POND MUD — I failed to see that treachery. But you claim he was kind to you?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way. I was essentially a slave. He was the least unkind. His two companions were sometimes cruel for no reason. To me, to Day-Nah and to the horses. Jaccim seemed cold but not actually cruel.” A frown crept across his face. “I am much happier to be back here with you and with my own people. The thing is…despite his injuries, it seems to me that Jaccim is actually happier here too. Don’t you find that odd? You might ask some of his companions. But that’s my impression.”
“That would be odd indeed. I think I shall take your suggestion, despite the inconvenience of having to use Cat Eyes as a translator. Speaking of whom…?” She looked at Tu-Swift.
Tu-Swift nodded. He had that slightly warm and slightly disturbing feeling that Many Paths looked at him in a way that made him say more than he meant to.
“I know what you’re getting at. I like her. You have to admit that she’s quite remarkable. But Sooz is still my special friend. I would love to go with Cat Eyes to find her village. It would be an adventure. But I understand. I might just slow things down. Anyway, use your gift of looking into someone’s soul on him. You talk with him. See what you think.”
Many Paths chuckled. “I cannot really look into someone’s soul. But I do try to see things from their perspective.” She took out a small vine on which she had strung her Seven Rings of Empathy and held them aloft and shook her hand playfully. “And, of course, with these Magic Rings, I can see through walls!”
Tu-Swift smiled. “Very funny. Shadow Walker told me about the joke you played on Trunk of Tree.”
“Yes. I suppose after what you two went through, you’re closer than ever. But don’t make fun of Trunk of Tree. He seems … for a time I was worried he might be on the path of ALT-R and POND MUD, but I think he’s going to be all right. It would not be helpful for him — please don’t tell anyone else. Honestly, I feel a little — I may have gone too far. He was really starting to annoy me. I was so worried about you and about Shadow Walker and he kept bugging me to just accept that you were both dead and that I should marry him.”
Many Paths shook her head. “Perhaps after breakfast, you could find Cat Eyes and Jaccim and the four of us could walk along the Rocky Ridge up to the Old Place and have a little lunch there while I question him. I still do not really understand him. He seems like a nice enough person. Yet, he lived among the ROI, and not only dealt with stolen children but he was apparently one of those who did the actual stealing. Such a heart, I cannot understand.”
Tu-Swift took his leave and eagerly gobbled down his breakfast before searching out Cat Eyes and Jaccim. The two of them sat together, slightly apart from the main throng of the Veritas, sipping tea. As Tu-Swift approached them, he noted they were talking in ROI. Tu-Swift frowned. He did not like the sound of ROI. It reminded him of his time there, time when he did not know whether he would ever see any of his friends again. He took a deep, cleansing breath and continued to approach them.
Cat Eyes spied him first. “Well met, Tu-Swift! Would you like some sassafras tea?”
“Sassafras? Really, Cat Eyes? I didn’t know you could make good tea from sassafras. Jaccim. How are you feeling these days?” Tu-Swift spoke slowly and gestured so that he hoped Jaccim understood his greeting.”
Cat Eyes judged from Jaccim’s puzzled look that he did not have any understanding. She quickly translated into ROI and Jaccim smiled at Tu-Swift. “Good. Good,” he said in highly accented Veritas.
Tu-Swift nodded to Jaccim and said, “Good.” Then, he turned to Cat Eyes. “Many Paths asked me to arrange a walk with you after breakfast if you are amenable. We could go up to the Old Place and chat. Is that all right? I will probably ride slowly on Clip-Clop so I don’t slow you down too much. It’s a nice view from there.”
Tu-Swift watched Jaccim closely judging whether he had understood any of his words.
Cat Eyes spoke to Jaccim in ROI. Only then, did any light appear in Jaccim’s eyes. Jaccim nodded and spoke back in ROI. Cat Eyes smiled and turned to Tu-Swift.
“We’re both fine with it, Tu-Swift. And, this tea,” she added as she handed a cup to Tu-Swift, “is not from the leaves of the Sassafras. It’s from the inner bark of the roots. Should we meet at the entrance to your cabin after you finish your tea?”
On the trip up to the Old Place, Many Paths sang some songs. Although Jaccim struggled to understand Veritas, he could repeat some of the songs so everyone joined in. Most of the time, they had to travel single file. Many Paths remarked on the beautiful vista that opened up as they emerged from the forest. Others followed suit. Even Jaccim pointed to an unusually striking lone cedar tree, twisted by winds and weather. He said, “Good” in his odd accent.
When they came to the Old Place, they sat in a circle and Many Paths passed around some pemmican for them to share.
Many Paths looked at Jaccim as she spoke but also held his eye as Cat Eyes translated her words into ROI. “How do you think of the ROI and the Veritas now that you have lived both places?” The question proved too abstract and vague for Jaccim, though because of the necessity to translate, it took awhile to realize this. Many Paths tried a different and more direct tact.
“Jaccim, do you prefer living with the ROI or the Veritas?” Many Paths could see that Jaccim remained puzzled by this as well, even after Cat Eyes not only translated the question but then tried to explain it in various ways. At last, she said to Many Paths, “He does not understand this question. So far as I can tell, he was — let me tell you how it was for me. I wanted to escape. I wanted to go home. Always. But I knew that I had to find some happiness where I was to stay alive long enough to have any chance of that happening. I could not spend my whole life wishing for something that might or might not happen and thereby not experience my actual life as it was. To be clear, this is not what he said. This is how I felt. But I think it’s akin. He was born into the ROI and now he is here. That’s that. He was never really given a “choice.” He cannot return to the ROI. He says he has no desire to go to live in a large cage which I guess is how he thinks of the city of the Z-Lotz.”
Many Paths considered. She had hoped to come to the topic slowly and subtly but was making no progress. She decided to chance a more direct approach.
“Jaccim, how could you steal children? I mean, how could you steal someone else’s child from them?” Many Paths had asked her question with a good deal of sign language and thought that perhaps Jaccim understood her question but she continued to look at his face as Cat Eyes translated. Once again, Cat Eyes and Jaccim spoke back and forth many times before Cat Eyes answered back to Many Paths.
“I’m sorry,” Many Paths, “but I don’t think he understands the question. He says that he was told to do that by the people he had to obey. His assigned job was to steal as many as possible quickly; not to permanently disable the children; and not to be captured. It wasn’t his job, so he says, to understand why they stole children.”
Many Paths frowned. Tu-Swift said, “I think that’s probably right. They viewed us, so far as I could tell, as another kind of horse. We are just tools, to them.”
Many Paths shook her head in sadness. She wondered whether a people could be so … disconnected from the Great Tree of Life — so out of touch with their own heart — that they would not even notice how … hateful it was to steal someone’s child. Many Paths felt tempted to turn her hate onto Jaccim, but she intentionally slowed her breathing and tried to think what it might be like for her if she had been brought up among the ROI — doing things without question — whatever you were told — not thinking for yourself about right and wrong. Sometimes, that kind of discipline was required. But always? Even in hunting the Large Ones or in war, sometimes warriors see that plans must be changed in the moment.
Many Paths sat silently, looking at Jaccim. He has spent his entire life not thinking about such questions. He just does what he is told to do by those he sees as his superiors. He has never thought about what it’s like from the child’s viewpoint or the parent whose child was stolen. Chiding him would accomplish nothing. He would have to be shown over a long period of time. For now, she decided, he clearly views me, and even Tu-Swift, as “superiors” so he can be trusted to fulfill his role.
“Jaccim, do you notice how the horses gallop?”
At last, a question he understood, thought Many Paths, because the answer came back quickly. Jaccim spoke with enthusiasm.
“Oh, they are so fast! And so … musical … in how they run.”
“Yes,” replied Many Paths, as she began Jaccim’s first lesson in empathy; one taught to the Veritas in toddlerhood.