Many Paths & Shadow Walker glanced at each other. Instantly, each saw that the other had also heard the shuffling. Shadow walker continued in the same tone of voice he had been using, being careful not to inflect his voice with any hint of worry or concern. “Perhaps the next persons with whom we should dialog are Tu-Swift, Cat Eyes and her parents, Tree Vines and Gathers Acorns. These are the people who best understand the Z-Lotz.”
Many Paths nodded. “I believe that Tu-Swift and Cat Eyes are going to share their recent findings with us tonight or tomorrow and then, they will be headed back to the library that lies over the mountain. We can talk with them and perhaps accompany them to gather still more information from her parents.”
Shadow Walker replied, “Great. I’ve had enough blackberries anyway.”
They began to stroll off. Once they judged to be far enough away, they split up and stalked back to the blackberry thicket from two sides, like the pincers of a crab or the jaws of a cougar. Weapons drawn, they moved only when the wind stirred.
For his part, Shadow Walker was sure their “mystery guest” was human. At first, he considered that it might be a small child from the Veritas hiding among the old stems of the blackberry bush hoping to overhear some adult talk that could be shared with friends. It would be a secret kind of knowledge and the child would gain status but providing this little seed of truth. His friends would plant that seed in their play activity and eventually try to grow a story, or even a whole moon’s worth of inter-related stories. A smile flitted across his face as he recalled doing this himself. As he re-neared the blackberry bush however, the sounds seemed too loud to be caused by the movements of a child. Whether child or adult or someone in between, the sounds were far too unskilled to be anyone from among the Veritas.
For her part, Many Paths considered a large, clumsy animal to be the most likely cause of the sound. She kept imagining various animals and dismissing them, one by one. At last, she was left with an odd sensation. What is this thing, she wondered. It’s clumsy, large, but … apparently wants to stay hidden. It can’t be a boar who would simply crash out. She noticed the teeny hairs on the back of her neck stood up as though a sudden chill wind stirred.
In a single moment: a scrambling figure in a dark cloak; a trap sprung, the jaws snapped together; scrambling, strong but ineffective struggler; same figure pinned by Shadow Walker while Many Paths stood near with long knife close enough to the stranger’s face that he could not avoid seeing it. “Who are you?” Shadow Walker insisted but the stranger screamed something back that was completely unintelligible. Shadow Walker looked at his adversary more closely and realized that he seemed vaguely familiar. He glanced at Many Paths. “This man is Z-Lotz or at least is dressed as one. This is exactly how the priests dressed. I saw a few on execution day. Some “priests” making a sport out of killing innocent people.” He turned back to the priest. “So, why are you here?” Then, he realized speaking in Veritas would not reveal much. He tried to think back to his time in captivity — and as king — where he had learned a bit of Z-Lotz. At last, he said haltingly, “You Z-Lotz. This is Veritas. You Z-Lotz. Why? Why you are here? What do you desire? Blackberries? I don’t think so!”
Many Paths glanced at Shadow Walker. His face: a storm front; his forearm ready for a deadly strike. “Shadow Walker, my dear heart. I do believe this man has some very useful information for us. I’m quite curious to hear his story, just like you. But let’s hear the story to see whether it satisfies us. If it does, we may chat still more. If and when his story gets woven into some web of lies, we will recreate this wonderful scene and you will be free to break his throat if you wish.” During this time, the arrow eyes of Many Paths connected completely with Shadow Walker. She did not even glance at the Z-Lotz.
Shadow Walker nodded, “Well said Many Paths. That is the wiser course. Now, who are you?” Shadow Walker grimaced as he remembered the language barrier and he repeated his last question in that tongue. “You name is?”
“OLIE” the subdued man replied.
Many Paths drew near. Removed her dagger from the sightline of OLIE but kept it close at hand. “I am curious how you came to be here. You must have a good tale to tell. It isn’t at all common to see an individual Z-Lotz. So, go on. Earn your dinner with your tale. We have more to offer than blackberries.”
Shadow Walker narrowed his eyes and stared at Many Paths. What is she doing, he asked himself. She’s being nice to him. Why? Another part of his brain was processing the reactions of the stranger. Many Paths is being nice on purpose. She thinks he may volunteer the truth. I should have thought of that as well. Then, once again, the thought struck him that he could be more effective in life, if he would sometimes ask himself, “What would Many Paths do?”
Shadow Walker’s attention now zoomed in on what the man OLIE was saying. Shadow Walker listened intently, but still couldn’t comprehend very well so he asked the man to supplement his telling with the more universal sign language. The stranger complied and Shadow Walker found he could apparently understand the basics of what was being said. Shadow Walker made it clear that he could get up and they would sit together but not to run. Here then, is OLIE’s tale. Shadow Walker translated to Many Paths.
“I was born, of course, in Read-It, the chief and most populous home of the Z-Lotz. My family was in the priest class and I did well in my studies so that I became a priest as well. I’m here basically because there is nowhere else to go. Read-It is gone. Z-Lotz are gone. I mean, most are. Many died in a plague. Then, we — ?! You are he! You are the king who left! Never in history has someone volunteered to step down. There was much chaos about the line of succession. Finally, the priests stepped in and said, “Look. This is absurd. We’re killing each other off. We should all work together as one team. When he said, ‘all’ he meant men. Men. Not women. So, the priests took over, including me. But soon, women started rebelling. The priests had gone too far, and fighting and chaos broke out. Many wanted to kill the priests. I barely escaped with my life! I didn’t have time to even grab my robes. I only had a simple shirt. But I found this on a dead priest. I looked at him and thought how that could be me. I took his cloak. I was hungry. I ate some blackberries. Then I heard someone coming. You two. So, I hid among the blackberry stems.”
To Shadow Walker the story seemed plausible, but he knew that did not make it true. It could just as well be that he’s really here to find out where our defenses are, how many of us are there, what are good places to attack from. Or, he could be bearing another sort of poison for us — different but equally effective as the last nasty stuff they left behind. He glanced at Many Paths. If she were having similar thoughts, nothing in her face gave such thoughts away. Shadow Walker realized that his own face was not so well trained as that of Many Paths. He replaced his angry face with an inscrutable one. Over the next few minutes, Shadow Walker noticed both that OLIE continued to become apparently more relaxed and that after he put a neutral face on, OLIE began to glance at him as well.
At the same time, Shadow Walker decided he would test whether OLIE truly understood Veritas. He added this phrase to his translation to Many Paths: “I wonder whether we’d be better off torturing him for information. That’s what they do.” He carefully observed the face of the priest and saw no clue there that OLIE had understood. Many Paths frowned and then her eyes widened. Shadow Walker added quickly, “Sorry. I was just testing whether he knows Veritas.” Again, he looked carefully at OLIE and saw no sign that he did.
After a long silence, Many Paths spoke, using Shadow Walker as her interpreter. She said that she appreciated his story. She said that she would like to learn more about the Z-Lotz. She said that she would like to invite him to a dinner where he could feast on more than blackberries. But she explained that not everyone in her tribe would be immediately trusting of the Z-Lotz. She described the strange stuff that had been given as a “gift” but that destroyed the arms of Stone Chipper. She described the plague which had nearly killed one of the tribe elders, their former chief, She Who Saves Many Lives. She did not describe how her own brother T-Swift had been stolen by the ROI as part of their agreement with the Z-Lotz.
“I see. Yes.” OLIE’s reply seemed insightful, yet blind. Shadow Walker & Many Paths waited for him to elaborate; perhaps, even to apologize. OLIE made no move to flee, nor did he seem to show any interest in conversing. He glanced back at the blackberry bush. Despite the predations of at least the three of them, there were still plenty of berries left.
Many Paths smiled. “Let us return to the Center Place of the Veritas. I will introduce you to a few people first and explain your circumstances so that you will be safe. In order to do that, and ensure your safety, it will necessary to know a little more. Do you believe you are being pursued by any of the Z-Lotz?”
OLIE made a quick, almost ritual, shake of his head. “No. No-one would bother. People are hungry and tired of fighting as well. For a short time, it seemed as though we might conquer the disease. Just as you said.” Here, the man looked directly at Shadow Walker. “But, you see, there was the matter of who was to be leader. After you left, fighting broke out. Many wanted to claim the throne. The fighting meant … everyone got close to everyone and there was little time for medicine or rest. Some few, including me, never got sick. We may have claimed…some may have claimed that it was because they followed God’s directives more fervently. At first, this sounded like a good plan. Many tried to be more pious, but they got sick anyway. And, then, they became quite angry with us. They were angry at the priests who had given such useless advice, but the anger spread to all priests.”
OLIE paused and looked down. Shadow Walker & Many Paths glanced at each other. “The priests are perhaps responsible partly. But…” He glanced at Shadow Walker. “When you left so suddenly and unexpectedly….it made everything worse. We didn’t know what to do. We made up new rules and tried to give the men privileges. They were pleased, but eventually, it backfired. Too much violence. My faith…? I don’t know. I don’t know. But without the Book, without God, what is there? Once the people stopped doing what we said, how could they be in tune with God. Imagine what would happen to your people with no-one to tell them how to interpret the Book.”
Many Paths looked intently at OLIE’s face. She was astounded. Many Path saw no hint that OLIE was trying to deceive her. Yet, it seemed to her impossible that the Z-Lotz, or at least this one, would know so little about the people they made their enemy. She frowned. Could they possibly know that the Veritas had no real “Priest Class”? Could it be that the Z-Lotz hadn’t known that the Veritas were ignorant of books until a few months ago? Or, that everyone among the Veritas created or discovered their own relationship to the Great Tree of Life? She took a deep breath. She tried not to scoff at OLIE’s apparent ignorance but instead to use it as a guide to reflecting on her own ignorance. What had she, or indeed, any of the Veritas, known even a few years ago about the Z-Lotz or the ROI or the Cupiditas? About the Fierce and Formidable warriors from the frigid north or the Nomads of the desert? The Veritas had not even known for certain that there were more Veritas on the other side of the mountain. Many Paths thought back to the empathy test that required them to try to see the world through the eyes of various animals. Even before those tests for the Rings, every hunter learned the ways of those who would be prey or predator. How was it then that the Veritas as well as the Z-Lotz had learned so little of the ways of their neighbors?