In her dream, Many Paths happened upon a patch of spearmint that stretched forever near the bubbling stream. She stooped down and plucked one of the dark green plants. She had always loved the smell of mint. She peered closely at the leaf. Something was wrong. Tiny black snails covered the leaf. Upon closer inspection, she saw them all over the stem as well. This is strange, she thought. Snails don’t eat mint. Nor had she ever seen so many. Were they really snails, she wondered. She turned to pluck another plant but they had grown nearly as tall as she was. Every leaf and stem was covered with tiny black — dots — snails. The snails were turning red in front of her eyes, contrasting wildly with the deep green. This is impossible, she thought. I must be dreaming. The snails don’t like the smell or else they don’t like the feel of these teeny hairs everywhere. They eat almost everything but snails don’t eat mint!
Shadow Walker stroked her silky hair and said, “Thanks for the tip. I’ll be sure not to feed them any. But as for you…I think you were dreaming, love.”
He smiled at Many Paths, brushing her hair as though removing the cobwebs of sleep. He held out a cup of mint tea. It smelled delicious and she could see the wisps of steam dancing in the slants of morning sun. Many Paths returned the smile, brought the cup to her lips and inhaled the refreshing smell. “I take it there were no snails on the leaves?”
Shadow Walker chuckled. “No. But if you fancy some, I’m sure I can find some for you somewhere. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any on mint, come to think of it.”
“Nor I. But in my dream, the mint was covered with them. They were tiny and they turned red. Anyway, look at the steam. What does that tell you?”
“That — the tea is hot?” The look on her face told him this was not the answer she had been looking for.
“It means, Shadow Walker, that the cabin has holes between the slats. They need to be fixed before winter. Sooner would be better than later because it also helps keep out the biting bugs.”
“Yes. Well, Many, we are soon to meet with our friends to plan….”
“I know. I know. I just…it seems I just got you back. I hate to see you going off to that hateful place again. Especially now that we know about Killing Sticks. If we had them too…”
“Many Paths, if we had Killing Sticks, we might have three more dead among the Veritas right now.”
“Yes. I know. But we are learning. They should only be used in war, not available to settle small quarrels. I wish we could speak more with Cat Eyes about whether she saw them misused in ROI.”
“Misused? If you ask me, they are always misused. What kind of honor accrues from killing an enemy without even touching them? Anyway, I think the people are beginning to realize the dangers. Many spoke at our last council fire about how dangerous real ones would be for those with a quick tongue.” He smiled at her again. “Drink your tea while it’s still hot. I’ve also got….What’s that?”
Shadow Walker stood, turned quickly grabbing his sword and peered out the door. Drums were signaling the arrival of strangers. Could it be that Cat Eyes, Jaccim, and others had already returned with some of the Veritas over the Twin Peaks? No. No. These approaching people were all strangers. They were ROI! Only four of them. On foot? He glanced back at Many Paths who was already dressing.
Many Paths nodded at him. “Let’s prepare to meet these ROI. I guess I don’t need to tell you to be careful. Last time they appeared, they pretended to trade with us and their real goal was to steal children and set our camp on fire! I wish Cat Eyes were here to translate.”
Shadow Walker added, “You prepare. I’ll find Tu-Swift. Your brother is the best substitute we have. He’s been learning as well as he can with the materials we have, the game Cat Eyes got and the marked leaves. And, he spent considerable time talking with Cat Eyes before she left.” He left.
Many Paths watched the leather door flap ripple for a moment before settling still into place. He left, she thought. And soon, too soon, he may be leaving again. She shook her head, took a deep breath, and prepared to meet the strangers.
By the time the four strangers arrived, nearly the entire village turned out. Sentries were still posted around the outer perimeter in case these four were merely sacrificial distractions from a much larger attack. The four strangers themselves were being carefully guarded. At last, the four came to the place of the council fire. As they slung off their packs, many bows were tightened in case killing sticks or other weapons were hidden within those packs. The leader of the four began to speak and Tu-Swift translated. Although he spoke directly to Many Paths, he spoke loudly enough that all the Veritas within the Center Place could hear his voice.
Many Paths felt pride that her brother’s voice proved loud and steady. His voice rang out clear, without a hint of fear or of hatred.
“Greetings from the Z-Lotz. We bring you gifts. We wish peace between our people. Here we offer you some glass and some steel from the ancient ones.”
Upon a large gray blanket, the leader laid out a variety of shiny objects. As he did so, Many Paths noticed that the hands of the leader seemed misshapen, perhaps from a badly healed war wound. Among the shiny objects lay another set of leaves with marks, such as the one that Eagle Eyes and Lion Slayer had brought back from the village of the Z-Lotz.
Many Paths glanced at Tu-Swift and began her answer for him to translate. “Greetings from the Veritas. Thank you for the gifts. We will arrange for gifts in return. We did not know you were coming. But soon we will have gifts. You say you are Z-Lotz but — and, your speech marks you as ROI.”
After the translation, the leader nodded. “Yes. We were born ROI. Our village is no more. We have had a long friendship with the Z-Lotz and now we are all Z-Lotz. The ROI are no more. We all are Z-Lotz. We were sent here by our leader, NUT-PI to form a stronger alliance. With you. Soon. Some day. For now, we only bring gifts. You need not give gifts in return. Perhaps soon, you can come visit NUT-PI and offer gifts. But for now, we simply offer gifts to show we want peace. NUT-PI only wants peace. This is from NUT-PI.”
The leader drew out of an inner pocket a number of shiny gold coins. He tossed them casually on the blanket as well.
“As you can see, the image of NUT-PI is on each of these coins of gold.”
Tu-Swift shrugged as he tried to translate this last part, saying to Many Paths and the other Veritas, “He refers to these circles as ‘coins’ and that they are made of something called ‘gold’ but I don’t know what these words of ROI mean.”
Many Paths looked at the gifts arrayed before her. There were three kinds of gifts, each quite different, but each one shiny in its own way. She asked Eagle Eyes to fetch a basket of spices.
“Thank you for your generosity. Will you stay with us for a time? At least have a meal here. And we will give you a basket of spices. Perhaps, we will find more suitable gifts later and we may indeed send a delegation to visit with NUT-PI. This will take some time. Meanwhile, you will stay for a time?”
Tu-Swift translated the words of Many Paths and the answer of the leader who said, “We must return at once with news that you also wish to have peace. That you will visit NUT-PI soon. You will discuss our alliance then, but meanwhile, you may enjoy these gifts.”
Eagle Eyes returned with a beautifully made basket filled with aromatic spices. She bowed and laid the basket in front of the leader on the edge of the blanket nearest him. As she stooped down, she picked up one of the gold coins and turned it over. One one side a profile of NUT-PI appeared and on the other side a full faced picture. She looked at the leader and said, “What an interesting and beautiful thing! Does this really look like NUT-PI? Does he always wear such an unusual hat?”
Many Paths wondered at her friend’s question which seemed oddly out of bounds, but then she reminded herself that Eagle Eyes saw things others did not so she nodded almost imperceptibly to Tu-Swift who translated the question.
The leader nodded and spoke, “That looks just like him. That ‘hat’ is made of gold. It is called a ‘crown’ and he wears it all day. Every day. Thank you for your kind offer to stay, but we must go. When do you think you may visit NUT-PI and seal the friendship between the Veritas and the Z-Lotz? Ah, yes. And here, among these gifts, is the most important of all. This book is the book of truth and tells you what to believe to become a true Z-Lotz. Please be sure to believe this before you come. That will make for a much better meeting with NUT-PI. So, when can you come?”
The mind of Many Paths now raced ahead calculating many different answers, none of which were without danger. “Thank you again for your gifts. The weather is good. We could travel soon. But — this thing you call a book — we have no idea what is in that or how to come to believe what is in it or how to know what is in it. How long will that take? How long does it take you to come to believe it?”
Once this was translated, the leader looked puzzled. He muttered briefly to his companions and then said aloud. “It is best to believe it. Later, you can discover what it says. We have many teachers in our village who could help you. First, believe it because it is the truth. Then after you visit, we will help you learn it.”
“I understand. Thank you for your offer. Please give our regards to NUT-PI and our thanks for his offer of peace. We must hold our own council and determine who among us would be worthy enough to come to visit you — and NUT-PI.”
The leader of the Z-Lotz delegation listened to the translation and immediately began speaking. “I am sorry about — there is no need to choose. It must be you yourself who comes — and alone. Of course, you may have companions up to the gates of their village. Our village. But then, NUT-PI and you must have a private meeting.”
As Many Paths listened to Tu-Swift’s translation, her eyes were suddenly distracted by Shadow Walker whose face showed such hatred and anger that she was momentarily alarmed that he might strangle all the strangers immediately. She looked at him and willed him not to do it.
“That sounds delightful then. We will arrange this as soon as possible. Certainly, peace is in everyone’s interest. And, by the way, please give my regards to your own leader, BRA-BRILL.”
Many Paths and Eagle Eyes both watched the leader intently. Even before the translation, they both noticed a dark blank face become set upon the face of the delegation leader when the name ‘BRA-BRILL’ was spoken aloud. Many Paths glanced at Eagle Eyes and could see that she too could see many calculations going on behind the eyes of the delegation leader. He was trying to decide, it seemed to Many Paths, which lie to tell.
At last, the leader nodded solemnly, and said, “I will give him your regards. Thank you. He too now accepts NUT-PI as the leader of us all.”
“Good. Thank you again for your gifts. I wish you could stay, but I understand you must have other tasks. Our guards will be happy to help you find your way back to the edge of the lands we call home. Safe journey to you all. I hope to see you again sooner even than you imagine possible.”
Many Paths studied all four faces. She hoped Tu-Swift was able to translate this phrase since she had chosen it carefully. She couldn’t be sure, but a flicker of confusion and doubt seemed to flicker on each face at the end of the translation. Seeds of doubt appeared to be sown now. Perhaps conversation among the four of them would help them grow on their journey home.
As the foursome turned to leave, Many Paths said, “Oh, one more thing. You are famous for riding horses. Why are you not on horses?”
The leader turned back. He listened for Tu-Swift’s translation and said, “We set the horses free. We have no more need of them.”
“Safe journey,” said Many Paths. She stared at the backs of the envoys until they diminished to black dots on the horizon, followed by their escorts. At last, she turned back to her people. Few of them had left for their daily activities. She stared at the gifts. The people awaited her decisions for the gifts. She walked over and picked up the book first. She handed it to Tu-Swift. “See what you can make of this, Tu-Swift.”
She motioned for Stone Chipper to come over and asked him to try to understand what to make of the shiny objects of — what did they call it? Steel?
Next there was the ‘glass’ but she had a bad feeling about this stuff. “Does anyone want some of this “glass”? Several came forward to touch it, and hold it and turn it about. A few seemed particularly intrigued. She nodded as they silently asked her whether they could have some. Gold coins. Each had a picture of NUT-PI. Eagle Eyes held one and studied it closely, turning from one side to the other.
She smiled at Many Paths. “This,” she said, holding up the coin to shine it in the sunlight, “may prove extremely valuable.”