Over the next several days, Shadow Walker’s memory and thinking improved. That proved to be a good thing because otherwise, even though he asked, indeed insisted that Tree Vines tell him in excruciating detail everything he saw from a number of public executions, he himself would have become hopeless. But Veritas were trained from an early age to push away hopelessness and instead to plan. Of course, this did not make them impervious to circumstances. Understanding the reality of one’s circumstances, even if unpleasant, always proved crucial to maximizing one’s chances for survival.
As Shadow Walker and Tree Vines reviewed the latter’s memories of the killings together, Shadow Walker probed for more and more detail. Veritas early memory training, it became clear to them both, proceeded along similar lines and had similar benefits on both sides of the Twin Peaks. Tree Vines had learned more of the Z-Lotz and ROI languages than Shadow Walker. He explained to Shadow Walker that his friend Eagle Eyes, if she had survived, would likely be in prison not too far away. Rumors were that NUT-PI had planned some sort of giant celebration with lots of torture and killing to take his people’s attention away from a rampant plague that was killing scores of people. Apparently, NUT-PI had at first refused to believe there even was a horrible disease among the Z-Lotz, and then he claimed it was only the impure in spirit or those who were disobedient to him or his interpretations of the Great Sky Bear’s law who had anything to fear. Many from among the most devout of the Z-Lotz had also died.
Food and water were scarce. On the one hand, Shadow Walker felt the need to conserve his energy for an escape attempt that might require every ounce of energy. On the other hand, he also needed to keep his bones and muscles strong. So, he exercised for short periods of time, but very vigorously and he encouraged Tree Vines to do the same. The exercises themselves helped them from slipping into a vague and vacant hopelessness. Shadow Walker encouraged the other prisoners to follow suit. At first, only a few joined in, but when the other saw the obvious improvement in mood, they began to join in.
Shadow Walker avoided dwelling on those aspects of his current reality that most distressed him but he did need to note them. Most disconcerting of all were the uncertainty about Eagle Eyes and the fact that his pouch containing his six Rings of Empathy was missing. He assumed someone had stolen it when he had been clubbed on the head. Somehow, playing with the rings always made him feel closer to Many Paths. Now, he had to be satisfied with closing his eyes and imagining he had the rings.
Another disconcerting thing was the weight and discomfort of the large extended collar that hung around his neck and then opened up into a kind of chest covering. It seemed to be made of the same stuff as the strange metal door that he had encountered on his first visit to the Z-Lotz and the sword that he had taken in the burnt forrest. All the prisoners had these strange shiny collars. These collars seemed impossible to remove and each prisoner’s had some of the strange marks that Tu-Swift had begun to decode. Every few hours, Shadow Walker’s mind returned to the idea of somehow using these collars as weapons. They should be useful. They were made of the same strange stuff as the swords … but how could they be used when they were so tightly attached? The puzzle maddened him and Tree Vines shared his intuition about their potential value, but other than trying to smash a guard with the chest plate, they couldn’t work out how to remove the blasted thing in order to use it as an effective weapon.
On sunny mornings, which predominated in the summer, a bright shaft of light streamed into the otherwise dank and cheerless cell. Tree Vines smiled one morning as he sat in this shaft of light and said to Shadow Walker, “Watch this.” At night, a fair number of rats stole into their cell searching for bits of food the prisoners had dropped or overlooked. The prisoners generally shooed them away. Tree Vines used the sun’s reflection off of his metal shirt to chase the rats away. Shadow Walker chuckled appreciatively. “At least, these damned things are good for something.”
One morning about a week after Shadow Walker’s capture, everyone in the cell awoke early because of a great commotion and chatter among the guards. The prisoners could also hear the hum of activity outside. Their only window was too high up to see anything except sky, but they could tell that a great many people seemed to be gathering and chatting excitedly about something. Soon, the prisoners themselves were speculating, mostly in Z-Lotz, about what was up. The door to the prison cell slid open and many warriors entered along with the guards. For a moment, Shadow Walker considered trying to run out the open door, but there were too many warriors and they were too concentrated. They had swords and clubs and their demeanor made it clear that they would brook no nonsense. They strung a long chain through a hole at the back of the collar. The guards held the ends of the chain and ushered the group outside.
They were greeted by a beautiful summer day. They were led over to a long bench. The prisoners needed to squint against the sun which was now high in the sky behind the throne on which NUT-PI sat in his golden crown. Shadow Walker strained to lean forward so he could better look to the left and right. He could see Eagle Eyes! He tried to catch the eye of Tree Vines but with his neck constrained and three people between them, it proved impossible. Shadow Walker caught a glimpse of the man’s face. A worried smile seemed to play over his features like a summer day with racing shadows from passing clouds. Shadow Walker glanced up. There were no clouds today. Only a circling flock of birds high above.
Shadow Walker craned his neck forward and backward trying vainly to whisper to Tree Vines. He saw that the female prisoners had all been outfitted as well with the same metal collars which, in the case of the women and girls, covered their ribs and stomachs but not their breasts. Suddenly, a loud gong sounded and reverberated through the stone walls of the Z-Lotz city. A man with a very loud voice stood next to NUT-PI intoning: “SILENCE! You may cheer when the rape and torture begins. First, let us hear from our great leader. If you talk while he talks, you will miss the entertainment. You will become part of the entertainment.” Everyone fell silent.
NUT-PI stood and a thick fake smile spread across his lips as he spoke. “Thank you so much for your attention. Our great city has suffered a plague brought by strangers to our fair land. Luckily, because of my leadership, we have defeated this enemy as we defeat all enemies — with strength of purpose and fierce loyalty to me and the words of the Great Sky Bear told through me! Now, that we have defeated this plague, it is time for some much deserved entertainment. First, on offer, we have three score young women and girls. I don’t want to spoil the surprise ending but for starters, they will all be brought before me and forced to look at me. I can watch them look at my eyes while they are raped. Then, I can watch the life drain out of them as they are slowly strangled. Or not, as is my fancy. Then, we will do the men as well. But first, they can watch their wives and daughters be raped. Guards, bring them one by one over here for my pleasure. Start with the youngest.”
Despite the threat of death, some of the women began to scream and beg for mercy. One voice rang out above the rest. It was the voice of Eagle Eyes. She was not begging for mercy but singing some weird toneless, loud, and long scream. What was she doing, wondered Shadow Walker. She’ll get herself killed right away! He heard a distant echo of her scream from the … no, it wasn’t really an echo, he realized. The pitch was higher. What — ? Then the motion caught his eyes and they reflexively shot upwards. He saw a score of eagles diving toward NUT-PI. A moment later, he saw them them too. At first, his mouth stood agape, but then, he grabbed his nearby Killing Stick and took aim at them. All at once a host of … bees or butterflies flew around his face. He fired the Killing Stick. So far as Shadow Walker could tell, he missed all the eagles, but several of the nearby Z-Lotz screamed and fell.
Shadow Walker shook his head. He couldn’t believe that someone had trained bees or butterflies to … no, no… he realized suddenly that they were not bees or butterflies. Those are reflections, he said to himself. Eagle Eyes and many of the women were adjusting their shiny collars to reflect the sun into the eyes of NUT-PI so that he couldn’t see clearly. Forgetting the guards warnings, he shouted to Tree Vines. “Focus the reflection of your collar and chest plate onto NUT-PI’s face. Tell the others to do the same!”
At first, a host of reflections scattered around NUT-PI, the gong, and the throne. NUT-PI waved his hands at them as though he were scattering a swarm of bees. Then, a thin and piteous scream emerged from his lips as more and more of the reflections converged on his face. He dropped the Killing Stick as he tore at his eyes and tried to cover his face with his hands. The back of his hands began to burn. The smell of burning flesh seemed to antagonize the eagles who now pecked at the squirming writhing NUT-PI. Blood began to pour from various places. NUT-PI screamed out, “Kill them! Kill them!”
His guards looked at each other, wondering who it was they were supposed to kill. Prisoners? Eagles? The Z-Lotz? No-one wanted to be responsible for misinterpreting an order. They were still wondering what possible order to follow as NUT-PI collapsed and fell silent. The voice of Eagle Eyes rung out loud and clear. “Your King NUT-PI is King no more. He dead. He defeated by messenger from the Great Sky Bear. Shadow Walker! Guards! Unchain new King. Unchain Shadow Walker! Fulfill the great prophesy of Great Sky Bear! He has used the power of the Great Sky Bear to become new king!”
Shadow Walker felt even more confused than when he had been banged on the head and awakened in prison. He squinted and frowned at Eagle Eyes. He vaguely felt the chain being slid out of his collar and the guards did something to unlock it. He had constructed numerous example plans for escape but none of them looked anything like this! Eagle Eyes had her own plan apparently. He walked toward the throne, his mind racing about how to embrace and amplify her plan. A conversation with Cat Eyes sprung into his head. Many of the Z-Lotz did not even believe anything about their religion, but they all acted as though they did. If that were true, maybe he could convince them that he was their new king. No, he corrected himself. He didn’t need to convince them. He only needed to act as though he were king and they would accept it. They had accepted NUT-PI as their ruler — clearly a deranged and cruel leader who cared almost nothing about his own people. He had been a coward at the battle of the three roads and he was a coward in ruling and a coward in death.
Play the part, Shadow Walker told himself. Play the part. Slowly and with as much dignity as he could summon, he strode to the throne. The birds jumped away for a moment as he neared and he noticed among the wreckage of NUT-PI’s finery, the leather pouch which held his Rings of Empathy. He snatched it up. He looked out at his audience of prisoners, ROI, and Z-Lotz. He could see that many were still sick, swaying feverishly and covered with ugly red dots on their faces and hands. This was NUT-PI’s idea of “conquering” the plague? No time for that. People expected him to be leader, so that’s what he needed to be, at least for now. He glanced at Eagle Eyes and allowed the slightest flicker of a smile to cross his face.
Shadow Walker turned to face the crowd. He wished he could speak more fluent ROI or Z-Lotz, but he didn’t. So he used sign language to enhance communication. He forced himself to speak in a strong steady voice.
“Greetings, brave and strong people of the Z-Lotz and ROI. I have bested your king. I am now king. That is your way. Our way. The way of the Great Bear in the Sky. The Great Sky Bear told me to come here. The Great Sky Bear said that the Z-Lotz need new King. Old King did not help you cure your plague. Old King was cruel. Old King hated families. Old King liked killing. Great Sky Bear does not like killing for no reason. Great Bear of the Sky loves you. Great Sky Bear loves all things that swim, fly, and walk. Great Bear of the Sky does not love Killing Sticks. Shadow Walker swallowed hard. He wasn’t sure what would happen if he tried to break the Killing Stick. Perhaps it would kill him first. He considered taking it and throwing it in a lake or burying it, but destroying it immediately would be far more dramatic…and far less safe. He noticed where people had been hurt. The Killing Stick was pointed toward them like a spear or an arrow. So, he made sure that part of the Killing Stick was pointed away from him as he smashed it against the stones behind the throne.
After he did that, he heard a cheer. It was Eagle Eyes. But many joined her cheer. He did not want to lose that energy and have people begin to miss NUT-PI. So, he continued to speak. “I bring you great news from Great Sky Bear. No more are we to steal children. The Great Sky Bear loves families. The Great Sky Bear loves families together, not apart. Release the prisoners! The men had already released themselves, but now the guards released the women and girls as well. It seemed that nearly all prisoners were part of families. Shadow Walker reflected that all of these people had come to the middle of town to watch entertainment, so he’d better provide some and quickly, he reckoned. But what? What?
Three poems about a pandemic: