A few days after Cat Eyes and the others told their tales, Shadow Walker’s ankle felt good enough to allow him to accompany Trunk of Tree as he checked on the Northern guard postings. He had taken to asking someone from the tribe each time he made a check. Although all the Veritas possessed detailed mental maps of the entire area, Trunk of Tree needed to see the entire area through new eyes that came from the knowledge that there are such things as Killing Sticks.
As they ascended the area known as White Pine Hill where the path could easily accommodate two abreast, Trunk of Tree, began to speak, “I’m glad you made it back okay. And, bringing back Tu-Swift as well. That’s something! Honestly, when you didn’t come back right away, I thought you would never find him. I mean, they were on horses. It’s just amazing that you ever found them.”
“As I said in my recounting, they were terrible at hiding their trail. It struck all of us as odd. Even the Nomads of the South. I thought they were just careless. Perhaps riding horses made them always impatient. I didn’t know about Killing Sticks at the time, but now, I am thinking that perhaps they had some so they did not feel threatened.”
“Perhaps, but our guards that were killed were surprised. I don’t think … wait. The only witness who was there was knocked out and doesn’t not recall much.”
“In any case, Trunk of Tree, they did not use them when they attacked us with the fire arrows. So, I am not convinced the ROI had any. Perhaps only the Z-Lotz have them. Perhaps, indeed, only Nut-Pi has one. He may feel that it gives him power and he doesn’t want others, even his own warriors, to have such a weapon.”
On they trod for a time in silence before Trunk of Tree resumed, “With so many of them and such fierce weapons, you can see why I thought you dead.”
“I suppose,” said Shadow Walker, after a pause. “I never really gave it much thought. Finding Tu-Swift and staying alive dominated my mind.”
Trunk of Tree continued, “So, yes. Of course. Staying alive. But we did not know you were alive. I thought not and so, of course, I thought of the tribe and supporting Many Paths so…I just thought you should know. So now you do.”
Shadow Walker grinned, “So now I know what, exactly?”
Trunk of Tree seemed surprised. “What? Oh, you know. I thought it might be that the tribe would need to think about re-arrangements and things. And, now, oh — Congratulations! by the way. But back then, you were not officially betrothed. That’s what I mean.”
Shadow Walker laughed. “Shadow Walker! Oh, Shadow Walker! Where are you?! Where is the brave warrior from the Battle of the Three Paths? I hope when are in the next battle, you keep your words clear and sharp and pointing straight to the conclusion. That way, we can react on the same day as the battle.”
Trunk of Tree reddened visibly. “What do you mean?”
Shadow Walker stopped and turned toward Trunk of Tree in such a way as to top him in his path. When he had caught his eye, Shadow Walker said, “Many Paths told me about your various attempts to woo her.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way. I was thinking about the tribe.”
“OK, Trunk of Tree but now Many Paths and I are betrothed. And, if you want to think of the tribe, we need to keep our unity now more than ever. Don’t ask her again. Not while I’m alive.”
“Absolutely! I’m … I mean Many Paths is too … Honestly, who is stronger? Me or Many Paths?”
An image flashed into Shadow Walker’s mind. He saw Many Paths skipping stones along the river not far from the Center Place.
Shadow Walker said, “When it comes to who can heft a larger rock, you are stronger. In fact, you’re probably the strongest of the tribe. Though perhaps some day we should test that. I think I might be able to best you. When it comes to balancing many factors in coming to a good decision, she’s the strongest of all the tribe.”
Trunk of Tree nodded and they resumed walking. After a few paces, he asked, “Well, what about throwing stones?”
“Throwing stones? Well, not all stones are the same, but I would guess you can throw similar stones farther than Many Paths.”
Trunk of Tree nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! Yes! I should be able to throw stones farther. Yet, she bested me just a few days ago.”
Shadow Walker chuckled. “Tell me what happened. Exactly.”
Trunk of Tree stopped again and closed his eyes. “She challenged me to see who could skip a stone farther. I picked one up and threw it. Hard. And with some skill. Then, she did the same thing and skipped it twice as far! I swear she did.”
Shadow Walker laughed gently. “Oh, she’s done the same to me. But let’s go back to your description. Tell me again. You picked up a rock. Tell me about the rock.”
Trunk of Tree frowned. “The rock? A flat one.”
Shadow Walker prompted, “What else?”
Trunk of Tree shook his head. “What else? There is nothing else. I looked down, saw a flat rock and skipped it.”
Shadow Walker nodded. “Right and what did Many Paths do?”
“She did the same. She stooped down, picked up a rock. Then, she … Hold on. She picked up another one. And another. What was that about? She picked up several and then…she lifted them and swung them and examined them. I remember thinking that she should hurry up and throw. But she picked one and then … well, actually, she still didn’t throw. She … felt the ground with her feet. What was that about? Anyway, she found a spot she liked and then…well, she still didn’t throw it. She twisted her body and her arm a few times. That’s like… that’s what we do with our legs before a race. I see. That’s what she meant by saying that preparation was important.”
“Right, Trunk of Tree. And that’s not all. She loves skipping stones. She’s done it a lot. And though she never said so, I imagine she tried many variations of stone to find out the very best size for her, the best way to throw it, and even where to skip in the stream.”
Trunk of Tree slowed his pace again and asked, “What do you mean where? Surely, you can’t tell where a rock will skip!”
Shadow Walker replied, “I can to some extent. But I’m sure Many Paths can do it even better. If you hit the rapids, it’s more likely you get a bad skip.”
Trunk of Tree shook his head. “How do you … how can anyone get along with her? She’s so … she thinks so much!”
“We get along just fine. To me, it’s a joy that she’s always thinking of something I never would have thought of. But what about you? Eagle Eyes is the same way! She comes up with amazing ideas!”
“She does. But lately…since she returned. Things are different. I’m not sure she likes me any more.”
Shadow Walker gestured to a spot in the cliffs that rose steeply on either side of the path at this point. “That would be a great lookout point. And, these cliffs would be a good spot for a potential ambush. But why not ask Eagle Eyes to help you find good battle spots for us?”
Trunk of Tree sighed. “Many Paths made a similar suggestion. But what if she doesn’t like me?”
“You’re guessing what is in her mind and how she feels! Ask her! Or, just ask her to come with you and see how she acts. But do something! Don’t just imagine how she feels.”
Trunk of Tree & Shadow Walker came to a broad field. After a time, he spoke again, “Do you believe what Cat Eyes told in her tale?”
“Yes. I was very suspicious when I first met the ROI. But Tu-Swift pointed out something odd about them. It seemed they only would fight when they were ordered to. Anyway, I have many reasons, but I believe her story about the other part of the Veritas.”
Trunk of Tree said, “Yes. I believe that part. I think we should try to connect. Maybe they would help us fight off the Z-Lotz and their Killing Sticks. But I still feel that Cat Eyes knows something she is not sharing.”
“I agree, but I think I know what it is. She was taken at a very young age. They trained her for sex. That’s what I think. She’s never said that, but whenever anyone asks her about the time shortly after she was captured, a darkness comes over her, she stiffens, and her jaw becomes rigid and she says she doesn’t remember anything or remember much or she changes the subject.”
Trunk of Tree made a face of disgust. “But she was only a child! Surely…That’s … why would anyone do that? That’s not natural!”
“No, it isn’t natural. It’s evil. But you see how it is with some people who will do anything for power. To them, being cruel to a child is even better because the child has no way whatever to fight back. And you can bend them to your will from an early age. Cat Eyes herself said as much though she doesn’t want to say anything about the horrible things that were done to her. I am afraid, Trunk of Tree, that these people who use Killing Sticks and Steal Children will show no honor whatever. We must train our people, even our children, how to kill without being caught — in case any such as Tu-Swift are taken at an early age ever again.”
Trunk of Tree nodded. He led Shadow Walker off the main path on to a small deer path that doubled back toward the cliff. They followed it as it zig-zagged its way up around the side of the cliff and up to the potential lookout that Shadow Walker had spied. It was a vigorous climb that often stabbed Shadow Walker’s ankle. The view from atop the cliff was worth it, however.
Somehow, it seemed to Shadow Walker, that high places like this allowed him to see everything in his life with perspective. He realized that he valued Trunk of Tree’s friendship and forgave him for seeking to replace him. Shadow Walker momentarily contemplated Many Paths with Trunk of Tree. Far from feeling jealous, he now felt a certainty that she would think circles around him. Shadow Walker smiled. She did the same to him, but he didn’t mind. She always showed him the paths of her thinking and he could follow them up to a high place where he could see the world more clearly.
He smiled more broadly as he felt deep in his heart that this was a great and beautiful land he looked upon. There were many wonderful people and he knew that though these Killing Sticks posed a great danger to the Veritas, his tribe would defend it to the death, he felt sure — each and every one of them.
One way or another, he thought, life and truth will survive and thrive. And so will we. So will we.