The days continued to grow longer. The herbs and dyes had been collected and prepared. Masks had been constructed for everyone in the tribe old enough to talk and walk. Many Paths, after consulting with everyone, had decided that all of the Veritas, and not just the young adults would be initiated into the ways of the warrior. Although kids had sometimes imitated the actions of their older brothers and sisters and engaged in mock combat, now the Veritas faced an enemy who stole children. If such children were snatched, it was important that they be able to fight, in order to delay capture, and to maim or injure the attackers. They must also be able to lie in wait patiently and be able to strike after capture; to see when the opportunity arose; and then to strike in such a way that they had little chance of being blamed.
Jaccim had confirmed that the Z-Lotz greatly preferred to steal children. Kids could be trained early to be docile slaves. Occasionally, attractive full-grown women would be stolen as well but they tended to be less docile and therefore less desirable to the Z-Lotz. Many Paths had already performed the molting ritual on Tu-Swift and he had worked with Sooz and Cat Eyes to teach the youngsters of the tribe to fight. This training had been mostly about perception and reaction. Now, the training would turn more serious and young children were about to be taught about weapons, hand combat, and about poisons and imagination.
Many Paths wanted the children to be initiated and wear make up and masks so that when and if the Veritas found themselves once more at peace, they could remove these masks and make up and that removal of the outward trappings of war would hopefully help also remove the killing mindset that she meant to inculcate into everyone in the tribe.
A great feast of wild boar, honeyed grain-cakes, roasted nuts, and boiled cattail had been laid out in the late afternoon. After the feast, the Veritas came to Many Paths one by one, oldest to youngest and stood before her. She handed each one a mask and anointed each with two dark marks of charcoal on their cheeks. The masks resembled various animals and were worn on the back of the head or, more rarely, on the side of the head. They were not meant to disguise the person’s face. Instead, the masks were intended to confuse the enemy about the orientation of the Veritas warrior so that killing blows would tend to arise from unsuspected places.
The Veritas came to her in order from oldest to youngest. Though Many Paths followed tradition in this, she could see the wisdom of that tradition. The youngest would have seen many models of how to behave from the elders and then the adults and then their older brothers and sisters. She felt and displayed a fittingly somber mood for the business at hand weighed heavily upon her. And though she intoned the ritual words with feeling, at the same time, half of her mind began to mull on the situation that required turning the people to killing. She heartily wished that the world had not turned so ugly and warlike. Yet, those wishes had no impact on reality. Many Paths did promise herself that she would continue to remind people of the lessons learned from The Battle of the Three Paths.
In that battle, NUT-PI had arranged three armies to fight against the Veritas. Two of those armies had instead become friends. Peace proved to be a very strong weapon. Many Paths would come to caution the Veritas not to become so enamored of weapons that they overlooked the possible paths to peace. Though she believed this, Many Paths also recognized that the alliances between the Cupiditas and the Nomads of the South and between the Cupiditas and the Fierce and Formidable Warriors of the North were both tenuous and temporary. They did not have a preponderance of true common interests. This had made rational dialogue possible. The “loyalty” of these tribes to NUT-PI was nothing more than a temporary convenience, fairly easily overcome by showing them the lies of NUT-PI and a path to a more permanent self-interest. Also, no blood had yet been spilled. Once blood had been spilled on both sides, talk of peace could easily be shouted out by the drums of war that banged in the heart of every warrior amplified by sorrow, fear, and anger. Many Paths reminded herself that she needed to have a frank talk with Lion Slayer about whether any from among the Nomads of the South would choose to fight with the Veritas.
She decided to wait a few more days for such a conversation and to include his mate, Hudah Salah, as well. When they had first arrived to spend a year with the Veritas, she had seemed unwilling to say much and agreed with her husband on every point. Something had changed however. Many Paths thought there were three reasons. First, she had become much more familiar with the Veritas language. Second, she had many actual friends now among the Veritas. When she arrived, she only knew her husband, Fleet of Foot and Eagle Eyes. Now, she knew everyone in the tribe and everyone knew her. Third, the great fire had separated her for a time from her husband and she had to survive without him, without knowing whether he was alive or dead. Many Paths judged that his deepened their love but also grew her independence. Many Paths also thought that Lion Slayer would be more likely to imagine everyone among the Nomads of the South would feel however he felt. Hudah Salah, would be more in tune with the heart of the entire tribe. She would not unthinkingly imagine that all of them would be as eager or reluctant to join in a lethal fight as she herself was.
The “coming to war” ritual ended with a long, energetic dance. This served to burn off some of the nervous energy that naturally arose from everyone in the tribe preparing for war. It also served to remind each person among the Veritas that they were part of a larger whole. Everyone participated including Many Paths and She Who Saves Many Lives. Though the latter was not so quick as she had once been, she moved with a grace and beauty that caused many in the tribe to smile. Long energetic dances also served as a training for long marches or fierce battles. Everyone took note of everyone else so they came to expect the tempo and style of everyone else in the tribe. This, Many Paths realized, could be quite helpful in coordinated group action. Everyone could see, for example, that Shadow Walker’s ankle was completely healed while Tu-Swift had still not recovered his former speed. A lot of information was exchanged about individuals at the same time that each individual felt more integrated into the whole. It occurred to Many Paths that some such a dance should be repeated with whomever joined in the Veritas endeavor, whether the Veritas who lived beyond the Twin Mountains or the Nomads of the South. The dance also tended to physically exhaust everyone and, as a steady wind bends the long grass, it would bend everyone toward much needed sleep rather than useless worry.
The next day began bright and clear. She met early with Tu-Swift, Eagle Eyes, Cat Eyes, Sooz, and Shadow Walker. She began by describing her experiment with reflections that had caused a twig to burst into flames. Using the Rings of Empathy and many pieces of mica, she arranged the reflections so that they all focused on a small dried twig. Again, it seemed as though nothing was happening when suddenly the twig burst into flames. Salah Hudah had been weaving nearby, not participating in the conversation. But when she saw the twig burst into flames, she exclaimed something aloud in her native tongue. She walked over to the group and spoke in Veritas nearly as well as those who were born Veritas might.
“These things,” she gestured around at the rings and mica, “are all shiny. Very shiny. We have in our land some shiny things as well. There is a shiny black stone which can be polished so much that you can see yourself as if looking in a clear, calm, lake. We call it ‘OB-ESS-DIAN.” And, there is another thing on the edge of the deep desert lands where no-one goes. It is also shiny. Very shiny. We polish it. We shape it. But it is evil. We call it GLAZ. Those who touch it get burned. We only discovered a few winters ago. We thought to make jewelry or … a kind of pond to look at yourself. I think it could be useful weapon this way too. But dangerous. It burns the hands as though you were too long in the sun. But it is not hot.”
Many Paths thanked Salah Hudah and contemplated once again how much better it was to have made friends with the Nomads of the South rather than fighting them. She vowed to try to find such a way even with the People Who Steal Children. But such people killed with no honor. With Killing Sticks. How could peace come about? It was a puzzle: an important one, but seemingly unsolvable.
Tu-Swift brought out his sword and moved it about. “This is very shiny too. As is Shadow Walker’s. I think…here’s let’s try making both of them shine onto a twig.” Shadow Walker worked with Tu-Swift and they reflected the sunbeams from their sword onto another dry twig. It did not burst into flames. They waited. At last, Cat Eyes stretched forth her hand and gingerly touched the twig.
“It’s warmer than just the sun would do, but not warm enough to burst into flame. But something else might work very well. In the village of the Z-Lotz, many of the richest families have such a portable pond looker as Salah Hudah described. But no-one I heard of got burned from it. So, perhaps it is made of something different. I don’t know.”
“Thank you, Cat Eyes. How many of these portable lookers are there in the whole of the Z-Lotz village?”
Cat Eyes sighed. “I was there as a slave. So, I was unable to go wherever I liked. There are many people. Sometimes, I visited other houses. All of them had such things. But I seldom went to small houses. I would say, these many. But I really don’t know.” Cat Eyes held up both hands ten times; each time, all fingers were splayed out. “One hundred.”
Many Paths nodded. “One hundred. Yet, so few as ten pieces of mica, and seven shiny stones can make a dry piece of wood burst into flame. Imagine what one hundred shiny things might do if all the many paths of light come together at one time and place.”
Shadow Walker said, “That, I think, would be very hot indeed. However, we don’t own those possible weapons. I don’t see how we can get them. But what of the shiny things of the Nomads of the South? How many of those are there, Salah?”
“Of the black OB-ESS-DIAN, there are many. Ten times ten. Of the clear ones… there may be one or two, but to my knowledge, once people realized they caused burns, no-one wanted them. People gave them back to the deep desert.”
The group thought about that for a time. Presently, Tu-Swift said, “I don’t understand. Why don’t they just use a long handle or many layers of cloth to protect their hands? Surely, you tried this, Salah?”
“Tu-Swift, you speak true. People did try this. We sometimes make even stones by hardening mud in fire. They become quite hard. But when they are first made by such hot fire, the stones themselves are too hot to touch. However, we take them out of the oven with large mittens made of many layers. People’s hands do not get burned. But there is something different about GLAZ. Many layers of cloth do not prevent burns though the GLAZ is not itself hot! It seems magic but evil. That’s why we returned it to the deep desert where no-one goes.”
Cat Eyes began to speak. “Fire ants feel like burning when they bite you. But they are not themselves hot. Their tiny side teeth pierce your skin. Perhaps such ants are made of the same stuff as the GLAZ at the edge of the desert.”
Salah Hudah nodded. “Perhaps. We know also of these fire ants. They sting. They feel hot. But people recover. The burns of GLAZ do not get better. More moons, more pain. They are something from a world of evil. I think the people, my people,…maybe they lend you or trade you for OB-ESS-DIAN. But all this to set a fire? Isn’t it easier to use fire arrows?”
Shadow Walker spoke next. “We should not forget what happened to the ROI. They used fire arrows against us twice. The first time, they surprised us. It helped them steal Tu-Swift. But the second time, they tried to destroy us, and they succeeded in destroying their own village and many of their people. According to Jaccim, the ROI were led by a cruel lying leader, and then, so far as we can tell, he was killed himself. I don’t much like fire arrows. But it’s better to use them than to become enslaved.”
Tu-swift added thoughtfully, “Perhaps we can get the Z-Lotz themselves to destroy their leader. He seems very cruel.”
Cat Eyes scrunched her face up and chewed her lips. “Perhaps. The people I stayed with, the richest among the Z-Lotz privately scoffed at NUT-PI — just as they did about their beliefs — but, because they are rich, they like having NUT-PI as a leader, if you can call him that. No doubt, there are man people in the village of the Z-Lotz who would like to have NUT-PI gone, but I’m not sure they are prosperous enough to have — I think they are called ‘looking glasses.’ Does that make sense? I think only the rich people like them.”
Many Paths nodded. “I’m not sure. If it is as you say, then the rich would have to have very good reason to use this weapon of many looking glasses against NUT-PI. But there could be other ways to bring many weapons to bear through many paths. For instance, arrows, even if not fire arrows, could be fired from many directions at once. Rocks could be thrown from many directions. Small amounts of many poisons might be given. And, maybe we could use mica and jewels to make many reflections to heat up … to heat up a Killing Stick until it catches fire. Or, perhaps, we could even use the killing GLAZ. If NUT-PI thought it was very rare, and very precious, he might desire much of it. If he surrounds himself with such GLAZ, he might get quite sick and not know why.”
Eagle Eyes had been fairly silent and now began to draw a map of sorts in the dirt. “All of these weapons we are discussing converge from many paths on to one place; for example, NUT-PI. But if we were to kill the Z-Lotz leader, wouldn’t they simply pick a new leader?”
Many Paths said, “It might take them some time. As I best understand it, if one of the Cupiditas kills the leader, then that person becomes the new leader. I don’t know about the Z-Lotz though. If they do the same, it might be confusing if many people at once killed the old leader. Who would get to be the new leader?”
Cat Eyes said, “I am not sure, but I think the Z-Lotz might do something similar. It might be confusing for them if many people together killed their leader. He is a very loud screamer, but I don’t think he’s very brave. I’m not sure why I think that. Anyway, he’s not very athletic. He looks nothing like Shadow Walker or Trunk of Tree, for instance.” She smiled at Tu-Swift. “Honestly, Tu-Swift, in a fair fight, I think you could take him. But I don’t think a fair fight is of any interest to him.”
Tu-Swift blushed. “I would love to do that if he’s behind the stealing of children.”
Many Paths spoke again. “We have many ideas. Which path proves most fruitful though will remain a mystery until we find out more. I think that the construction of a good weapon that will be effective depends on knowing more. We need to find out more. How are their walls constructed? Can we tunnel under them to sneak in? Can we dig under them to cause collapse? Are the walls too high to fire arrows over? Rocks? Should we attack with many? Or, should we sneak in a few? Can we steal enough of these looking glasses to make a weapon? Can we steal their killing sticks? More swords? Can we sabotage their bows and arrows as Tu-Swift did to the ROI? And, how can we use our horses? Will they join us in this fight?”
Shadow Walker took a deep breath, “Many, I think I should go visit these Z-Lotz. Maybe I could trade with them and get some Killing Sticks in this way. We have many fine and beautiful baskets. And, Salah Hudah, do you think these shiny things that cause burns can be recovered or — ?”
Salah Hudah shook her head violently. “I don’t think you should touch them. I don’t think you’ll find them — at least not easily. Our people just wanted to get rid of them. They are covered up now with shifting of many sands. But they burn without warning. And worse. One woman who especially liked these. She was very beautiful. She had many suitors who brought her such as treasures. She paid much. She became something else. Her body began to grow like mushrooms. No longer beautiful. And, she was sick in every way. And died. That is what triggered everyone to throw them out.”
“I should go with you,” volunteered Eagle Eyes. I can see danger before danger sees us. And I have been there before. “What of you, Cat Eyes? You know this place better than anyone else? Will you come too?”
Cat Eyes nodded. “I will go. I like this place much better! Much better! But perhaps it would be well for me to go first to my people. Some may recognize me. I may recognize them. I can be…I can be like a pair of logs over the brook and allow others to cross. Perhaps the Veritas over the Twin Mountains will have other weapons or other knowledge. Then, we can decide what to do about the Z-Lotz. It is also possible they might leave us alone?”
“I hope that,” said Many Paths. “Why must people steal children? But I don’t think they will leave us alone. I do not think they will leave the Nomads of the South alone either. Nor, the Fierce and Formidable Warriors of the North. Nor anyone who simply wants to live in peace. If I thought otherwise, we would not have all sworn to the way of the warrior. But that does not mean we must attack at once. More knowledge would be good. Let us first try to reach the Veritas beyond the Twin Peaks. Jaccim knows how to find a path there, so he thinks.
“Meanwhile, we will grow stronger and faster and learn the skills of killing in case we need such skills. We will continue to train even the smallest among us so that if any such are captured, they will be weapons; unsuspected weapons like Cat Eyes.”
Now, Eagle Eyes spoke, “You are wise, Many Paths. I have a thought though about yet another weapon.”
“We have trained a few from among the Wolf Pups. And, we have trained few from among the Eagles. What if … you know that I can draw a likeness of any of you and that you will know who that likeness is. Eagles have eyes even better than ours. I am wondering whether it is not possible … perhaps if I can see the Z-Lotz leader, I can teach my eagles, and more eagles besides, to attack this hateful man and pluck his eyes out. Could it be possible? I don’t know. And for Wolves the same. Except they do not see as well as do we ourselves. But each person smells different. If someone can steal some of his clothing, perhaps such pups could be trained to attack and kill something that smells of him.”
Many Paths smiled at her friend. For the first time since she found out about the Killing Sticks, she felt confident that there was a way to prevail against such a weapon and that they would find it. And use it. “Those are excellent ideas, Eagle Eyes.”
Everyone in the group nodded.
Many Paths spoke again, and her voice sounded clear and confident, “I promise you, we will not rest until we find a lasting and believable peace with these Z-Lotz. Or, we will destroy their leader. If that doesn’t stop them from stealing children, we will destroy the next leader. And the next. At last, everyone shall also be destroyed and all of their Killing Sticks — until they stop stealing children.”