Original art by Pierce Morgan
As was traditional among the Veritas, before beginning the delving into such a troublesome topic as how to make sense of killing sticks, they sang their songs of the origins of the Veritas. They sang a song about their daily life and another about the dangers of greed and lying (taken from their story, “The Orange Man.”) Lastly, the ended with a song about the forgotten fields.
These elements were traditional, but Many Paths opted to push their common ground even further because she knew this could be a very divisive topic. She intuited this partly from overhearing snippets of conversations as she passed by. She saw the puzzlement and concern on everyone’s face now. And, she reckoned that the idea of a weapon that kills so quickly quite reasonably caused much anxiety. When people were anxious they often shied away from the truth and from exploring many paths before running down one. She didn’t expect everyone to think of as many branches as she did, but she hoped they wouldn’t sprint thoughtlessly down the first path they spied.
“If you will indulge me, I would like us to recount for a few moments, our successes in the Battle of the Three Forks. I do this for two reasons. I recount this victory because it will remind us of our ability to work together and our creativity because in that battle, we used many weapons that some among us invented. Eagle Eyes, as you may recall, invented the slippery slope after watching the ant lion; she also trained the Eagle to protect her and found a way to divert the river. And what was our greatest weapon of all?”
“Arrows well-aimed.” someone shouted.
“Well, those are vital and we have some exceptionally good archers here.” In the mental screen of Many Paths, the image of Shadow Walker drawing a bow sprang to mind. She missed him all the time in the form of a dull ache, but seeing him so vividly in her mind’s eye sharpened the pain as a hot pepper may do to a toothache. She drew a curtain over that image and continued. “I suspect our greatest weapons were being patient and trying to understand our enemies. As a result, two of those so-called enemies were not even actual enemies. In the case of the Nomads of the South, we have formed friendships and exchanged goods to both of our benefits. I recount this tale because it is natural to fear a new weapon that we do not understand. It is wise to dialogue this. Let us do so thinking with our whole brain. Do not become panicked. We have long survived and we will survive long after. So — open your hearts and open your minds. What do we make of these killing sticks?”
Trunk of Tree, being Trunk of Tree, immediately took a stand against the legitimacy of the question. “Before we go any further, I’d like to say our first step should be to verify this rather preposterous story with another witness.”
“You do have another witness,” said Lion Slayer. “Me. I was there as well. We both saw and heard the same things. We surely were not struck by the same hallucination at the same time.”
“There might be many ways for an illusion to occur. I do not fault you, but I am willing to lead another expedition to observe — and even steal this killing stick.”
Lion Slayer slowly shook his head. “ I do agree, that it would be good to find out more, but it will take at least a week. And, once you are there…it is huge beyond your imaginings. In fact, we would have been captured several times except that, Eagle Eyes really is just that. But there are at least 100 times as many people there as we have Veritas. We saw what we saw and we came back here without being seen or caught.
Eagle Eyes spoke up, “Lion Slayer’s right.” If you went back again to get an unnecessary verification, that person could be caught. That is not only a danger to the brave persons who would attempt to witness another such use; it is a danger to the whole tribe. If such a one were seen, these Z-Lotz would know that we know about these killing sticks. This may well hasten an attack as they would wish to do so before we learn how to make such weapons or defend against them. And, if such a one were caught, they would surely be tortured for information. Perhaps they would successfully resist or mislead but if they have a weapon such as this, who knows what kinds of torture they might have?”
In the Veritas form of dialogue, it was not necessary, particularly at the beginning to answer point with counterpoint. People just shared their thoughts and experiences. The Veritas actually listened to all of those who had spoken so far. There was a silence as the sun set in violent crimson and the roaring fire began to look brighter with the setting sun.
Hudah Salem said, “I say to you that the Nomads of the south also think it good that we did not fight. It was not our fight. This now, we know more about the Z-Lotz and Nut-Pi. This now, we are happier still not to fight you.”
Many Paths nodded. “So far, the strongest weapon we have found is not a weapon at all, but finding common cause so as not to fight at all.”
Trunk of Tree spoke again, “But imagine that the Nomads of the South had had such killing sticks, assuming they do exist. They may have been less reluctant to kill if it were so easy and so risk-free for them.”
A long silence ensued. The Veritas tried to imagine how having — or not having — an easier, more risk-free way to kill might or might not influence their actions and decisions.
At last, Many Paths spoke. She realized that Trunk of Tree was likely using the dialogue as a way to demonstrate his wisdom and power. Nonetheless, it was more important, so she thought at the time, to seek the truth. “I believe you may be correct, Trunk of Tree. I would add that how much such killing sticks would encourage or deter going to war would depend on how a particular tribe thinks about life and how they reward their warriors and on what basis. All of these considerations must also be in our calculations as well. Eagle Eyes and Lion Slayer, I have a question, perhaps on the minds of many. In this meeting you witnessed, suppose that the leader of the Z-Lotz had not had a weapon of any kind. Would he have prevailed over these other men in any case?
Lion Slayer shook his head. “We cannot tell. We did not get a good look. Neither man seemed particularly — neither of them looked like Trunk of Tree. The one called Nut-Pi was a slight man, not young, but neither was he old. The first two he killed looked to be able-bodied warriors. The last man killed, the one he tortured, was portly. In a fight without weapons — who knows? We could not judge their skills.”
Eagle Eyes spoke next. “As Lion Slayer said, we did not have a chance to see the war skills of either. I can say with certainty that both Nut-Pi and the man we think was leader of the People who Steal Children were cowards. Neither one was a brave as our warriors.”
Trunk of Tree questioned this as well. “How can you say this? You do not know.”
Eagle Eyes replied, “It is true. I do not know for certain. However, the Z-Lotz leader, Nut-Pi, though he had a killing stick, had numerous guards around him to face these unarmed persons. He used a weapon which easily and immediately killed two men. And yet, he did not use it just once but many times on his last victim. He intentionally and cruelly inflicted pain. Such damage as caused by the killing stick could have killed quickly. He chose to do it slowly instead. That is a bully. He used his power and his weapon to humiliate and cause unneeded pain. These are signs of a coward.”
There was a general murmur of assent.
“The other man — the leader, so I think, of the People Who Steal Children begged for his life. He did not try to help his comrades. As Lion Slayer said, he looked to be one who has things brought to him all his life, or at least recently.”
Many Paths added, “Indeed, we already have evidence that Nut-Pi was a coward. He did not participate in the Battle of Three Forks though he tricked others into fighting. He promised the booty to be gained from the defeat of the Veritas to three different tribes. Surely, he knows one thing cannot be given to three different tribes. He lied to his own comrades and allies. Such a man is a coward.”
Trunk of Tree again spoke. Since he had no direct knowledge of the affairs, it began to seem to many among the Veritas that he was not participating in a true dialogue. This rarely happened, but it had happened.
Trunk of Tree said, “So there are cowards with killing sticks and cowards without killing sticks. From this we learn nothing. A strong leader, who is not a coward could be a very formidable leader and lead his people to victory after victory.” After a short pause, he added, “Assuming they even exist, of course.”
Eagle Eyes shot a look at Trunk of Tree and caught his eye. She signed to him subtly so that others might not see, but openly enough that Trunk of Tree caught the meaning of her deft sign language, as did Many Paths and several others. “Do you think I am a liar, Trunk of Tree?” the gestures asked.
Easy Tears spoke next, “Trunk of Tree, we welcome you to share your thoughts with the tribe, just as we welcome the thoughts of everyone in the tribe. But I, for one, would like to hear from others what they think of this killing stick. And, speaking of sticks, Many Paths, perhaps it is time to make use of the Talking Stick as well.”
There was a general murmur of assent at this suggestion. The tribe had not forgotten that not so long ago, Trunk of Tree had spoken against the leadership of Many Paths and even now, it seemed that everything he said was aimed toward making him leader and making him in charge of the killing sticks, no matter what the costs.
Many Paths stood and held aloft the Talking Stick. She glanced around the circles and saw that Stone Chipper wanted to speak so she handed him the Talking Stick.
“You all do know that we use arrowheads and spearheads and that the preparation of such requires work. Yet, most of you do other work, so you do not realize how much skill and how much work is involved in making a good arrowhead or a good spearhead or a really good axe. It may be that these killing sticks require much less work. Or, it may be that these killing sticks require much more work to fashion. We have no idea. We also have no idea how much skill is involved in keeping one or using one. We do not know how much using a killing dulls it. Can it be used ten times? A hundred times? A thousand times? Not everyone is equally skilled at bow and arrow. Not everyone is equally skilled at using a spear thrower. Sometimes, in learning to use our weapons, one of our own is injured. You have all heard how flaming arrows, which seem like an excellent weapon accidentally destroyed an entire village. We know nothing about the dangers of such killing sticks. Perhaps one who seeks to learn to become highly skilled might accidentally kill others or themselves while they are learning. Perhaps we should all have one. Perhaps no-one should. But I believe it would be foolish to steal them from these people of the great walled city, these Z-Lotz, until we know more about them. It isn’t just like stealing their bows and arrows which we know how to use and make and care for.”
Stone Chipper’s son, Horse Viewer offered his hand to his father who laid the Talking Stick for the first time in his son’s hand. Stone Chipper hoped his son’s would prove wise. “When I was young and first followed my father to help find appropriate stones, I generally walked barefoot. As I grew heavier and my father walked more quickly, I disliked the sharp stones on my feet. So, I began to wear moccasins as most do. This protected my feet. But it also made them softer. Is it not possible that using the Killing Sticks would make the arms that throw spears and the arm that strings and draws a bow softer and weaker as well? That is my thought.”
She Who Saves Many Lives took the Talking Stick and said, “And that is a good thought, Stone Chipper.” Though the tribe awaited her to say more, she passed the Talking Stick to A-OC.
“It is thus with hands as well. And muscles,” said A-OC. “When it is the season to climb the trees and fetch fruit, my skin and my arms both become stronger. But when it is a season of much weaving, only the tips of my fingers are hard.” With that she passed the Talking Stick to Bent Finger.
He silently held up the crooked index finger of his left hand. “It is true that the animals of the forest, the trees, even the rivers adapt as do our own bodies, but not always. Sometimes accidents happen and there is no repairing it. As you see, my badly broken finger never did straighten or regain its earlier strength. This makes me wonder about the accidents that might happen with such killing sticks about our camp.”
P-OC gently took the Talking Stick. “We talk of killing sticks. But if I understand the tale told by Eagle Eyes and Lion Slayer, they saw one killing stick. Do we really know whether there are more?”
Lion Slayer signaled his intention to speak again. Many Paths took the talking stick from P-OC and handed it to Lion Slayer. “It is true, P-OC. We only saw one. That is an important point. In the place where Sadah and I were born, there are many grains of sand. They are each but a very small rock, so tiny that even an ant may carry such a very small rock with no harm. But when there are many many such small stones and they fly together like a large murmuration of starlings, these insignificant tiny stones can kill the strongest among us if he is left unprotected. So, I agree that it makes a great deal of difference if there is one such killing stick or a hundred or a hundred hundred.”
Eagle Eyes spoke next, “I do not know whether there are a hundred or a hundred hundred, but I am fairly certain that there are seventeen. I mean, at least seventeen.”
Lion Slayer was taken aback. “But we only saw one. What do you mean?”
Eagle Eyes explained. “I agree that the number is an important point, so I have been returning to our observations from before we arrived at the giant camp of the Z-Lotz. When we were searching the horizon for signs of our comrades, I saw many — well, 17 to be exact — of such similar sticks being carried among the party. I just thought at the time that they were odd spears or walking sticks. I did not realize at the time that they were sticks that kill so I did not pay much attention to them. But upon returning as I just have to what my eyes saw, there were seventeen.”
Lion Slayer shook his head slowly. “I do not recall seeing any others. But I do believe Eagle Eyes. She is amazing. Her eyesight is much better than normal. It is possible…how do you…you notice so much, Eagle Eyes.”
Many Paths picked up the Talking Stick and noticed Trunk of Tree wanting to talk. She used her prerogative though and added, “I, for one, believe Eagle Eyes. But we still do not know whether there are 17 or 100 or 100 of 100. This seems important for two reasons. First, a hundred hundred such weapons could be overwhelming while even so many as seventeen might be defeated by our archers. Aside from that, if there are only seventeen such Killing Sticks and each one owned by someone else, then, if we were to steal one to study, we would surely be found out. But if there are hundreds, a few missing would be far less noticeable.”
Trunk of Tree could no longer contain himself, “Wait! A few minutes ago, you were cautioning against trying to learn more Now, you want us to steal such Killing Sticks.”
Many Paths tilted her head toward Trunk of Tree and held the Talking Stick high. “Trunk of Tree, you must wait your turn, even as so must Eagle Eyes and Lion Slayer who were actually there or even as so must everyone. You must wait your turn, even as young Horse Viewer did, though he be only of nine summers.”
Gentle laughter murmured among the gathering and Many Paths continued. “I did not say either of those things. In fact, in my whole life, I don’t recall ever saying that we should not learn more. What I do believe is that it would be wonderful to know more about these Killing Sticks, but I also believe that there would be great risks in trying to steal one or more of them. I did not say that we should attempt such a theft. I said that if we were to steal some and that there were only a few, these Z-Lotz would likely notice that they had been stolen.”
There were nods among many of the Veritas.
Fleet of Foot signaled for the Talking Stick and Many Paths handed it to him. “Many Paths speaks true. I have been thinking of something else though. What would it mean if we had many such Killing Sticks and it were so easy to kill. What would it mean if we could kill with so little effort? Might not the people use them to kill each other?” He looked at the Veritas in the firelight as he spoke.
“Have you never quarreled with your neighbor and raised your voices in anger and tussled with them momentarily. Perhaps you were so angered you went home and plotted to kill them. But that took some thought. And as you thought about what to do, you soon came to realize that you had no real desire to kill your friend. You were merely angry. And so what if she were in the wrong. Your friendship is more important. And, the next day you embrace her and forget the argument of the yesterday, choosing life and love, in the today.
“Imagine you had ready to hand one of these killing sticks and you got so mad you stung her to death with it. Your friend is dead. You will never be the same. Now, also are two families devastated. Anger and division will creep into our numbers as never before.
“And suppose,” continued Fleet of Foot, that many tribes all have such weapons? Will they not have such moments and cause wars with the killing of many on both sides? And could these killing sticks not also be useful in keeping slaves?”
Easy Tears added, “Yes, but there are other ways to do that — to keep slaves.”
A-OC took another turn, “Is this possible misuse among ourselves not a greater danger than the temporary military disadvantage? If we cannot safely still such killing sticks, can we make these killing sticks?”
Stone Chipper asked, “Do we have any idea how they might work?”
A long silence followed.
Eagle Eyes said, “I know fairly well what they looked but I have no idea how the work.”
Many Paths spoke, “It grows quite late. We must discuss this further, of course. For now, we must post more guards. Trunk of Tree, will you please consider how best to do that?”
He nodded, glad of something to do and glad of the honor that Many Paths bestowed after chiding him somewhat for speaking out of turn.
“Eagle Eyes, tomorrow, perhaps you and I and Staff Carver and Easy Tears may begin making some models of these Killing Sticks. I would like us to make perhaps seventeen — quite a good number for now — and spread them about among our people. I would like those who are given such to imagine that they are actual Killing Sticks. And, I would like everyone else among you to also imagine that they are true Killing Sticks. I would like to see how people react to these Killing Sticks among us as we continue to discuss what to do. Even though the Killing Sticks are no real, having such a thing — it is much like the masks we use to help with hunting. It will help us decide how to deal. Even such Killing Sticks as Nut-Pi has will not kill all our cousins in the sea and the air, all our brothers than hide in their tiny caves. Life will persist. This I know. Peace now be with you all.” She glanced at She Who Saves Many Lives. Even in the dim and flickering firelight she could see a small nod and an approving smile on the lips of the Elder.
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