Many Paths trotted over to the location specified by the drum rolls. Her eyes skimmed over the path ahead, skipping from one good landing spot to another. She gave a little chuckle as she reminded herself that there was no need for another sprain in the family. Images of her brother Tu-Swift and her lover Shadow Walker both loomed into her mind’s eye. She missed both of them so much. She believed it likely that Tu-Swift was fine but Shadow Walker was another matter. She felt he was okay, but being surrounded by ROI and Z-Lotz…? That was inherently dangerous and unstable. She really wanted both of them to be with her.
Then she sighed and thought to herself, If I am really going to attempt to bring peace to the tribes — or bring the tribes to peace — I must be able to master my own feelings. Trunk of Tree is not the person whose counsel I most wish for, but still he does have a different perspective on things and I should tell him that I value that. But …
She stopped in the path and listened to the drum signals. There were four people approaching. So far as Many Paths knew, Trunk of Tree had stomped off by himself. Who were the other three? She frowned and bit her lower lip, but she took a deep breath and waited for the drumbeats to signal who his companions might be. Soon, she knew, the signal drums would inform her of names for known people and transmit descriptions for unknown people.
Her eyes widened. The drums did not speak of Trunk of Tree. No! It was Shadow Walker! She began sprinting toward the spot the drums indicated. And, Eagle Eyes! And two more Veritas! Her strong legs now propelled her forward even faster, fueled by a mixture of gratitude, longing, joy, and curiosity. At last, she came around a bend in the path, went up a slight rise and saw a party ahead on the path. Shadow Walker!
She screamed his name, “Shadow Walker!”
Shadow Walker saw Many Paths and began running as well. They came together in a rib-bruising clasp. They closed their eyes and kissed each other wordlessly. Many Paths chided herself for forgetting how wonderful her partner smelled. And tasted. She pushed him away at arm’s length to allow herself a good long look at him and then hugged him to her again. “Shadow, Shadow, Shadow!”
She again pushed him away and smiled at him. “You have no idea. What? We thought… Dear Eagle Eyes.” She embraced her as well. “Who —? I’m sorry. Forgive me, visitors. I am Many Paths of the Veritas tribe.”
Shadow Walker’s smile of joy seemed to illuminate the nearby sheaves of grass. “Many Paths, allow me to introduce Tree Vines and Gathers Acorns. These are the parents of Cat Eyes! We — there is so much to tell, but we must save much for another time. We must — I am afraid that we suspect the Z-Lotz may come after us. I am sorry to say, we must be prepared for another attack.”
Many Paths greeted Tree Vines and Gathers Acorns with a genuinely warm smile. “I am very happy to meet you. Come. Let us go to our Center Place where we may prepare guards so that we may tell each other our stories in peace and safety!” Many Paths took the hands of Eagle Eyes in her own and then hugged her. “I missed you too! I could really use your advice on so much. There is so much. But wait! Are you sick? Are any of you sick? You don’t look sick. But very recently we have had a plague here.”
Shadow Walker quickly explained that he believed all four of them to be well though there were many among the Z-Lotz and ROI who were quite sick and many had died. As the small group proceeded toward the village, many other Veritas came out to greet them as well for all had heard the drum signals. By the time they came to the Center Place of the Veritas, a great crowd had assembled.
Many Paths strode up to the speaking stone that stood at one end of the clear open space in the middle of the village. She called out in strong, happy voice: “As you can see, Shadow Walker and Eagle Eyes have returned! And, these two companions are Tree Vines and Gathers Acorns and all have tales to tell. But first, we must make sure the guards are on alert. Although they do not believe they were followed, they have reason to think we must be ready for another attack by the Z-Lotz, the people who steal children.”
When she had finished her short speech a thousand questions began to be whispered while the drummers pounded out their message of caution to the guards that had been posted at the outskirts of the Veritas lands. When the drumbeat signals stopped, Many Paths held her hand out to Eagle Eyes. Many Paths desperately wanted to hear what Shadow Walker had to say, but she felt that Eagle Eyes should likely tell her tale first.
She ascended the rock and described how she and Shadow Walker had quite easily tracked the recent envoys from the Z-Lotz. She told how the men they tracked had all fallen quite ill with red dots and how they had buried their bodies in rocks. She began to describe how unclean she and Shadow Walker had felt after. As she thought back on that, she felt the color rising in her neck so she quickly skipped ahead. “In any case, we snuck into the city of the Z-Lotz and thought we were unseen. We were captured and held separately. We had all been on the verge of being murdered in public by the King of the Z-Lotz, NUT-PI. He had a killing stick which he was going to use to torture and kill us along with many other prisoners. As she looked out on her tribe, she could see that they were spellbound. She nodded briefly and went on. “I looked up into the sky and saw eagles. I closed my eyes and imagined their calls.” By now, Eagle Eyes animated every aspect of her story. When she closed her eyes, she saw eagles right here and now. So did most of her audience.
She continued, “I called them to me. They began to circle and then swooped down in a flash to attack NUT-PI. He tried to kill them with his killing stick but he was too slow. And…we had another weapon!”
She paused, enjoying the expectant looks on the faces before her. “Not so long ago, some of you may have seen that we were playing with reflections and found that enough reflections of the sun, concentrated on one place, could cause small sticks to catch fire. The Z-Lotz put a shiny collar on us. While we were imprisoned, Gathers Acorns and I hatched a plan that, if we had a chance, we would shine the sun into the eyes of our enemies. Shadow Walker and the other men prisoners had similar collars. He quickly caught on to what we were doing and added their reflections. Since NUT-PI was the immediate threat, we all reflected our little suns onto him and his head burst into flames!”
The eyes of the Veritas widened as they pictured someone bursting into flames. She let this image sit for a moment in the collective imagination of her tribe. Then, she resumed.
“Different tribes choose their leaders in various ways. The Z-Lotz choose by assassination! Since Shadow Walker, so we claimed, had killed NUT-PI, he should become their leader. As you might imagine, many objected to this, but, at least initially, since it was their habit, and the people were afraid, most accepted him — us really — as rulers. I can tell you more about how that went later, but first, there were several attempts to overthrow Shadow Walker by assassination. Last night, Tree Vines came at night and told us there was going to be an attack by many in the morning so we had to leave immediately. We came here. Obviously, the Z-Lotz already know where we are. But we didn’t see any signs that we were being followed. Still, prudence would say that we need to be careful. From the Z-Lotz standpoint, Shadow Walker is actually still king…so long as he’s alive, that is. But even apart from that, it’s clear that they would not mind exploiting us and possibly even destroying us.”
Many Paths spoke next. “Did you bring NUT-PI’s killing stick back with you? Were there more?”
Eagle Eyes glanced at Shadow Walker. Then, their eyes locked. It was clear that Eagle Eyes wanted him to explain why he had made the killing sticks inaccessible. He nodded, almost imperceptibly and ascended the rock, unafraid to take a helping hand from his friend. “By sheer accident, we discovered a stash of killing sticks. By the way, I destroyed the one NUT-PI had. It was a thing of much violence, clearly, but beyond that, I knew nothing about how to operate it. So, I destroyed it. If I had kept it, it might have been used against me. I could not picture myself killing a human being in such a way with such a thing.” He paused as though reliving how difficult the decision had been.
Then, Shadow Walker continued his narrative.”We found a stash of killing sticks. By accident. We don’t know who among the Z-Lotz knows of its existence. We had not yet decided what to do with them when Gathers Acorns and Tree Vines told us we must leave with as little as possible. I made it so the Z-Lotz could not easily get to these killing sticks. If they know about them, they will eventually get them but, Gathering Acorns also poured a combination of fermenting acorns and sewage atop the killing sticks. She believes this will render them useless, not to mention disgusting, but we are not really sure.”
Many Paths regained the gray granite stage, and said, “Now, here is another thing. These helpers of Shadow Walker and Eagle Eyes — Tree Vines and Gathers Acorns — are the parents of Cat Eyes. They have been apart for many years. And, as soon as these two are rested from their journey, we will have a group quickly take them to their village on the other side of the mountain so they can be re-united at last with their daughter.”
A clear voice rang out from the edge of clearing.
“That won’t be necessary!”