The make-shift crutch that Tu-Swift fashioned for himself worked pretty well. He made a few adjustments along the way; for example, roughening up the grip so his hand wouldn’t slip and tying some sphagnum moss round the upper cross-piece. Tu-Swift forced himself to use all his skills to remain unseen. It felt to him that this was a complete waste of time, but he did it because tingles of intuition can be accurate…or they can be completely misleading. At least, that’s what She Who Saves Many Lives said and so did Many Paths.
Suddenly the image of Many Paths playing “Stalked and Stalker” with him last autumn flashed into his mind. It burned so vividly that he could smell the autumn leaves. She had hidden beneath the hanging roots of an over-turned tree. Many Paths had also obliterated any sign of her path. Instead of searching, Tu-Swift had closed his eyes and imagined he was Many Paths. Then, he opened his eyes and scanned them over the landscape, not to find Many Paths but to be Many Paths trying to find herself a good hiding place. The first place he had spotted was the over-turned tree. Indeed, Tu-Swift had found her very quickly. He had explained his intuition; he had been quite proud of it. Many Paths, however, praised him but then also warned him that such intuitions were not always correct. It’s fine to try but don’t assume it will always work or be accurate, she had warned.
Tu-Swift brought himself back to the present. Hadn’t he been half day-dreaming when the People Who Steal Children kidnapped him? Perhaps if he had been more vigilant…. And yet, he could not shake the eerie feeling that he alone existed in the entire universe. His plan for pre-cooked meat soon revealed itself to be smoke.
He found many small cooked animal corpses all right and one burned deer, but they were all burned to a crisp. They were nearly indistinguishable from the corpses of fallen trees. I will continue to be wary, he promised himself, but if I were one of The People Who Steal Children and I saw a forest fire coming my way, I would not head back out into the forest and plain! I would try to get away from it. Head for dessert or water. I might grab a few things, but I’d be trying to save my life. I wouldn’t be interested in organizing or joining a search party for some missing kids. Not even ones that are mischievous enough to let out your horses. Well, they would be pretty upset about that one. Yes, they might put a price on my head for that. But they may not even know it was me. Unless they captured Day-Nah.
Day-Nah, Shadow Walker, Fleet-of-Foot — who knew whether any of them were okay? I barely outran the fire myself and I’m already one of the fastest in the village. Well, not now, maybe, but I was. And, soon will be again. I hope. What if…what if I can’t run? Bear Bite used to be a fast runner too. But never after that bear chewed the back of his leg. So, some injuries you never get over. All the more reason for continued caution.
What Tu-Swift now lacked in mobility, he attempted to compensate for with thoughtfulness. Despite having the feeling that the woods were empty, he constantly scanned the surrounding area, not only for signs of approaching enemies but also for possible hiding places for himself and for places that would not be thought of by The People Who Steal Children.
In this tense manner, Tu-Swift continued to hobble through the margin of the burned forest until he found himself at the edge of the very village he had worked so hard to escape. The entire area looked like the morning after a giant’s campfire. Parts of many building stood, charred and darkened spikes; they were everywhere. He could see one blackened side of the barn still standing. Tu-Swift began to walk toward it when he heard a moan. It could be a trap he thought.
Tu-Swift turned his head this way and that. He thought that the sound seemed to be coming from the remains of building where I put the broken quills and bows. Speaking of which, what weapon do I have? I can use the sharp rock I brought with me. And, the crutch which I could use as a club or as a thrusting weapon. There were more weapons in that room. At least, I think so. They may have all been taken out.
As he cautiously hobbled toward the entrance, Tu-Swift heard the moaning growing louder.
More likely than a trick, he thought, would be a survivor of the fire, badly burned or broken, but still possibly quite dangerous. You can’t really count on anything, Tu-Swift thought to himself. You can be sitting at a feast enjoying yourself and then you wake up in a cell. These people kidnapped me. They stole Day-Nah as well and they are mean to the horses. Why do they steal kids? Whoever it is, they can suffer in pain. In fact, I might be able to add to it. Why don’t they leave other people alone?
By the time Tu-Swift reached what used to be the doorway of the armory, he had managed to generate a good deal of hate toward the moaner. Tu-Swift had imagined cautiously peering in as he opened the door, sharp rock at the ready. But there was no need. Part of the door and frame remained standing but there was a wide gap on either side. He peered into the charred skeleton of the building. His eyes fastened upon something on the far wall. As he drew nearer, he could see that it was a sword. A far better weapon, he thought, than a sharp rock. Using it and the crutch will be a challenge, he though. He picked it up and felt the blade.
It was sharp like the Veritas weapons, but it was smooth; it was even. It felt immensely powerful in his hand. Tu-Swift again heard the moan and it seemed to be emanating from the earth below him. After hobbling about in the mostly empty armory, Tu-Swift found a large door ring on the floor. It seemed to be fashioned from the same kind of stuff as his sword. He pulled up the door and he could see a staircase before him. He lay on the floor and peered over the edge. He could see four shadowy figures who seemed to wave about in the dim light. They began talking excitedly or some of them did. The moaning continued. One of them drew near and Tu-Swift clutched his sword more tightly.
Even in the dim light, Tu-Swift could see that a beautiful young women stood below him talking. But he had no idea what she was saying. It was that same language all these child-stealers spoke. Maybe he should kill her, but he didn’t really feel like it. Two more figures joined the young lady. They were all female. But one figure, the moaning figure, remained rolling and writhing on the floor in the shadows.
Suddenly, Tu-Swift recognized the voice despite it’s inhuman quality. It was the one that he and Day-Nah had called “The Fat Man.” He had actually been the nicest of the three that made them cull horses and shovel manure, but he was one of them – the People who Steal Children. He had a sudden vision of ending the man’s life by thrusting his sword through his belly button. For a split-second, Tu-Swift recalled that image of himself on the right when his mind had been trifurcated. He pushed that image aside.
Tu-Swift slowly descended the staircase, awkwardly carrying his crutch and sword with him. When he reached the bottom, he gestured for the three women to move away from him. Cautiously glancing all around, he made his way over to The Fat Man. His young eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light. The Fat Man turned toward him and Tu-Swift nearly vomited at the sight. He had never seen someone with such a disfigured face. Once again, he was tempted, this time out of mercy more than anger, to end this man’s anguish. He looked into his eyes. It was one thing to hate an enemy in one’s mind and even kill them there but it was quite another to look your enemy in the eye and kill him in real life.
Instead of thrusting a sword through the belly of The Fat Man, he gestured to him that he would go and come back with some plants to help heal his body. All four of the People Who Steal Children were now jabbering at him. It seemed they were asking questions, but he couldn’t even be sure of that. I should really learn more languages, he scolded himself.
Tu-Swift ascended the staircase, this time sitting on the stairs and going up one at a time. He had a plan of which plants to gather. He had noticed them near the corral. Once he made his way back outside however, he surveyed the camp and realized that these herbs would have been destroyed along with everything else. Trees, buildings, animals, plants, healing herbs, beautiful flowers, food supplies — it had all been destroyed. Tu-Swift promised himself that he would collect a small piece of charred wood to remind himself of the destructive power of fire — and of greed and lying — as personified in the Myth of the Orange Man. If he ever returned to the Veritas Center Place, he swore he would look at it every day and remember the face of The Fat Man.