After Shadow Walker and Tu-Swift had been embraced by all of the Veritas, including Trunk of Tree, they had a chance to circle back to Many Paths, who continued to shower them with affection. Their entire party, including Cats Eyes, the ROI, and the two horses all served as sources of amazement.
Jaccim and Tu-Swift cautioned people to stay well back from the horses. Even the colt could deliver a serious kick or bite if terror overcame them. Trunk of Tree had followed Many Paths out of the village and had greeted Shadow Walker and Tu-Swift warmly. He quickly understood that he could help by keeping people at a distance from the horses, so he did.
The Veritas asked more questions than anyone could answer. At last, Many Paths spoke in a loud, clear bell of a voice.
“We all rejoice in the return of our excellent comrades, Shadow Walker and Tu-Swift. We will hear their tale, as they must hear ours. Such recounting is best done from beginning to end, carefully, and not in answer to a bee swarm of questions. You all know why this is. One must plant the seed in the proper season, let it grow in the proper season; harvest in the proper season. If one is pressed to answer questions out of order, here and there, scattered like dandelion seeds blowing this way and that, one may answer so as to make a good story for the conversation, rather than answering for an accurate reconstruction.
“Like you, I am impatient to learn more. And, there is much to learn. But we do not want to corrupt such lessons. After our evening meal, we will hear the tale of how Tu-Swift became not so Swift and of how Shadow Walker became Shadow Limper.”
Titters of laughter broke out among her appreciative crowd.
“But for now,” she continued, as she held aloft her hands sporting all seven Rings of Empathy, “these rings tell me that I must interrogate Shadow Walker alone for a time, concerning a private matter.”
Many Paths took Shadow Walker’s hand and she pulled him toward her dwelling. Many of the adults in the tribe chuckled for all knew exactly what kind of “interrogation” Many Paths had in mind. The children of the tribe knew or felt that the words of Many Paths showed one meaning but something else was hidden beneath. They sensed that both from the countenance of Many Paths herself and from the reactions of the adults. What that underneath meaning was, the children, for the most part, could not guess. In any case, they were more fascinated by the odd way that the strangers spoke, the scarred face of Jaccim, by the Irises of Cats Eyes, and the sheer size of the mare.
Many Paths had fantasized about her next meeting with Shadow Walker on multiple occasions during his absence. They all began with a sudden and violent animal coupling. That fantasy had seemed so real. But in the moment of their actual being alone and lying beside each other at last, she first wanted to drink him in through all her senses, perhaps to convince herself that they shared this here, this now, this moment, and now this moment and yet another.
Many Paths, both by natural bent and by training, had lived a life of conscious gratitude. She felt gratitude for the sunrise: its beautiful variety; it’s promise of a new day. She felt gratitude for being alive as she woke; and for the life all around her; for her ancestors. She felt gratitude for being able to relieve herself and for feeling the cold of the morning. She felt likewise gratitude for the sun setting and the warmth of the campfire and for its constant, random flickering. She felt gratitude for her memories and her hands and her skills.
These were all child’s play — practice sessions, in a way — for the gratitude she felt now that he — Shadow Walker — had returned, alive and whole. Look! Here was another moment of his being real, of his being alive!
Now, they each had much to tell each other. Many Paths had not yet decided how to bring up the several instances in which Trunk of Tree had tried to undermine her authority or convince her they should join forces and “lead together.” Of course, he would have to be told, and soon, but she had to think carefully about exactly how to do that.
“I am so happy to see you, you cannot imagine,” she began. “And so thankful you found Tu-Swift.”
“Oh, Many Paths, I can imagine because I am so glad as well.”
“Shadow, I really don’t want to spoil your memory, but at least tell me whether you are all right — and Tu-Swift. And who are these people? Did you ever find out why they steal children? How did you find Tu-Swift?”
“I am glad to see you still have patience enough to wait,” chuckled Shadow Walker.
Many Paths laughed too. “You are right. I’m sorry. But are you both all right? And what is … never mind. All you all right?”
“At one point, we had to run flat out through smoke to escape fire. We all became separated. I turned my ankle and it’s almost healed. I think it would have been fine except that, we had to keep hiking anyway. There are so many things to tell, but anyway, Tu-Swift really hurt his knee for the same reason. But his injury — I am not sure whether he will ever heal completely. I guess we will know in time.”
“Thank you, Shadow. Maybe you could give me the outline of the journey you took and you can later relate the story in detail tonight.”
“All right, Many Paths, I shall. Of course, it would be very helpful to have a map of the region.” Shadow Walker gave her a sly smile.
Many Paths’ eyes brightened. “Oh, I have a map if that will help!” She began to rise.
Shadow Walker put his arm out. “No, no. Your map won’t do. We went beyond your map. But I just need something to frame my story. It doesn’t need to be detailed. This will do for my map.” As he said the word ‘this’ he motioned to the body of Many Paths.
Shadow Walker began to tell his tale: how they had all been together and following a trail that was as loud as a thunderstorm. He described the strange door that they had come to, made of something cold, hard and smooth. (He unclasped her belt and slid it aside to dramatize the moment).
He described how they had rescued Tu-Swift and how he had helped with his own rescue by damaging the weapons of the ROI. He recounted how they had been attacked with fire arrows. (And, he illustrated this by a rain of his fingers landing very gently over her body and sliding away downhill like raindrops or tongues of fire).
And he told how that fire had split apart their party. (He gently parted her lips with his own to illustrate the point more vividly).
He showed her how the flames spread over the hillside and engulfed the ROI village. (Because it was important for the Leader of the Veritas to remember this, he illustrated by rubbing his hands together to warm them and showed her how flames may climb gently but sometimes land on another spot to make a fire).
He spoke of his running headlong to escape the flames uphill and downhill. (He demonstrated by gently tracing the contours of her body).
He told of his indecision when he woke up all alone about where to go next.
Many Paths sighed and said softly but firmly, “I know exactly where you should go next.”