Trunk of Tree led the small group through the fields of wildflowers buzzing with bees and up the grassy foothills that marked the edge of the lands the Veritas considered as home. Jaccim and Cat Eyes came next, each leading a pack horse. Cat Eyes discovered that she had a fondness for horses and, oddly enough, for Jaccim himself. Each day of the journey, Jaccim became more familiar with the Veritas language, thanks to tutoring by Cat Eyes. She spoke with Jaccim partly to learn more of his people, but this proved difficult. Jaccim had memorized a few verses that the Z-Lotz had insisted everyone learn, but he could not explain what the verses meant.
In fact, Jaccim knew almost nothing about the history of his own people, nor how they came to be aligned with the Z-Lotz. Cat Eyes discovered that Jaccim had learned how to handle horses from his own father and uncle. He had ridden from an early age and had taken part in a number of different raids when he was younger — raids to steal children for the Z-Lotz. To her astonishment, Cat Eyes learned that Jaccim had never asked himself why they had been stealing children, or what was to become of the children once they were delivered to the Z-Lotz let alone how these cruel predations ravaged the children or their families. It was just what he was told to do so he did it. Cat Eyes sighed and shook her head. She considered trying to give some insight to Jaccim about what her life had been like but decided this was not the time. They were relying on Jaccim to find a path through to her homeland. If she were successful in having Jaccim see and feel just how reprehensible his actions had been, how might he react? She did not know; but she didn’t want to chance his bolting with the horses, which could have been one possible reaction.
Sometimes, Jaccim was silent for long periods of time. Sometimes, Jaccim asked Trunk of Tree to stop for a moment. Jaccim would close his eyes, apparently in some sort of inner dialogue with himself. Then, he would open them and scan their surroundings. Then, he would point and nod. Trunk of Tree would continue down the path chosen. When Cat Eyes grew tired of her tutoring, she would drop back a few paces to chat with Lion Slayer and Hudah Salah. She had learned a few words of the language of the Nomads of the South when she was in the City of the Z-Lotz, but she was learning much more from them. In particular, she asked about various kinds of plants, animals, and physical features that she saw. When she learned a new word, she would store it in her head. She began to notice as the journey wore on that the words of the Nomads and the words of the Veritas and the words of the ROI and Z-Lotz, while all different, were not so different as they might have been.
At one point, their small group rested under a large, spreading oak which dominated a long slope of golden grass. Called “oak” in Veritas, the Z-Lotz word was “oag” and the Southern Nomads called it “oh-kah.” At first, Jaccim only referred to the tree in terms of the ROI expression: “hard to work wood tree”, but at last, he recalled that some called it “oat-tah.” While Cat Eyes carried on her linguistic queries, the rest of the group began to prepare a lunch. Jaccim tethered the horses to a low hanging branch. Fleet-of-Foot, who had been mainly walking with Easy Tears, jumped up and grabbed a branch, pulled himself up, and soon clambered to the crown. From here, hidden in the thick summer foliage, he peered around in all directions. He also cupped his hands around his ears while spreading his ears out slightly. Thus able to hear much fainter sounds, he slowly turned his head, listening as well as watching for any possible armies, game, or … what was that sound? As he turned toward the still-distant Twin Peaks, he heard a slight sound of … rushing water? It seemed to be coming from the nearby foothills. These hills were similar to the ones they had just left, but grew steeper and larger. Somewhere in those hills, fresh running water gurgled over rocks and sang its song loudly enough for him to hear from his high perch. Convinced that they were in no immediate danger, he climbed down to have his share of the lunch and told the group of his discovery.
The next morning, after they climbed the top of a hill, they could all hear the roar of water and soon, they could see the sun glinting off the rushing water in the distance. Jaccim confirmed that long ago, the raiding party had also found this stream. It took most of the day to reach the water. The “stream” that Jaccim had mentioned was more properly called a river now. Cat Eyes pointed to the high peaks before them and, they were able to see tiny threads of silver cascading down the sides of the mountains. Some of that distant water would eventually find its way into this river, she reckoned. They refilled their water skins. As they sat around their small evening campfire telling their stories and making their plans, they were treated to a distant show of lighting and a reverberating thunder. The horses, despite being tethered near the coolly flowing water, paced nervously and nickered.
Trunk of Tree, who had grown weary of stories and plans at last said, “Let’s get to sleep. I’ll take the first watch. Then, Lion Slayer. Then, Fleet of Foot. We leave early in the morning.”
Jaccim shook his head, “We’re all tired. We have a long journey tomorrow. Many days after. We must move away from the river.”
Trunk of Tree grunted. “Absurd. I’m in charge. This is a perfect spot. The horses can drink their fill. We cannot easily be seen. There is game. Sleep now. Walk in the morning.”
Cat Eyes glanced at Jaccim. He was frowning. His mouth moved but no words came. She asked in ROI, “Why should we move, Jaccim.”
Jaccim spoke quickly in ROI and supplemented his speech with sign language. “The rain on the mountain will melt more ice and bring much water. This water — or much of it — will come riding down the mountain like a herd of horses or buffalo and trample everything beneath it. We must move to higher ground or be trampled.”
Cat Eyes translated for the group.
Trunk of Tree held up his hand part-way through. “Absurd. No. We are safe here.”
Cat Eyes could see that Trunk of Tree was “digging in” and ignoring the ideas of others. He was the sort of person, she saw, who found it particularly difficult to “change his mind” once he had made a decision. She shook her head and closed her eyes so that Trunk of Tree could not see her rolling them in disgust at his intransigence.
Cat Eyes spoke in her softest, most enticing voice. “Trunk of Tree. You are our leader. I have no idea whether there is danger here. How can we know? But I do know something of the power of water. When we escaped from the war party that came to the burned village of the ROI, we rode hollowed logs. We almost went over a cliff but, thanks to luck, and Jaccim’s quick thinking, we were able to get to shore just in time. The logs were big, but when they went over the water cliff, those logs smashed onto rocks below as easily as I can break a twig — or, Trunk of Tree, in your case, as easily as you can break a large branch.”
Trunk of Tree shook his head again. He looked at Lion Slayer. “Have you ever seen or heard of such a sudden river coming?”
Lion Slayer answered, “I have not seen such. We have too little water. In my life, I have never seen too much. But we do have stories about such. Too much water comes too quickly and kills plants, animals, and even strong trees, stout in trunk, have fallen, according to the stories. But no, I have not seen such myself.”
“But I have. And, so too have you seen this, Trunk of Tree, or at least the aftermath.” It was the quiet clear voice of Easy Tears.
Trunk of Tree frowned at her. “What are you talking about?”
Easy Tears smiled in the fading campfire light. “I am talking about the Battle of the Three Paths. Eagle Eyes devised a way to make much water come at once and washed away quite a few of the Cupiditas warriors. Some of the Veritas may have forgotten. Lion Slayer and Hudah Salah were not there, but you might remember, Trunk of Tree. Do you?”
Trunk of Tree considered. “Maybe something. I was busy fighting. Perhaps. But I doubt it could have actually toppled the warriors. Not if they were strong.”
Fleet of Foot nodded, “I saw it with my own eyes. It was something I will never forget. One minute a throng of Cupiditas soldiers were running across a shallow stream and suddenly the whole lot of them were knocked off their feet and taken away from us. Listen!” Fleet of Foot pointed upstream. The others turned and listened. In the quiet, they heard the horses whinnying but also stomping the ground and jerking at their tethers.
Jaccim added, “Horses know danger. Horses know danger. Good ears!”
Cat Eyes cupped her hands behind her ears. “NOW! Move!”
Trunk of Tree stood and threw his arms in the air and shouted, “This is ridiculous! Absurd! It’s only water! I don’t hear anything!”
The others grabbed what they could and scrambled to higher ground. Jaccim however, went first to the horses, untied them and swung his leg up around one of them and grabbed hold of the other by the rope that necklaced the neck of the other.
The voice of Cat Eyes rang out, “Trunk of Tree! Come! We need you to lead us! Don’t get swept away like the Stupiditas!”
“I’m staying right here! You are all fools! I don’t….”
The group had all climbed a nearby hill but there was no sign of Jaccim, Trunk of Tree, or the horses. Now, everyone could hear the roaring water bearing down on their location. Jaccim rode up astride the largest horse, still carrying water skins. He led another horse and across the back of that horse, Trunk of Tree lay senseless.
Jaccim looked at Cat Eyes and shouted in ROI to be heard above the roar. “Sorry. I had to knock him out. For his own good. Will he try to kill me when he wakes?”
Everyone now looked down at the valley right below them. In the dim light of the moon they could see, not a river, but a wall galloping down the valley. It was a wall not just of water but of ice and logs and mud and rocks as well! It destroyed everything in its path.
Cat Eyes screamed back, “I won’t let him!” But she could barely hear her own voice. She wasn’t sure Jaccim could make out what she was saying. She used sign language to emphasize her promise of protection, but no-one was watching. All stared down below, mesmerized by the chaos beneath them. The riverbed swelled. The wall of water passed them and became a mere churning sea of blackish brown water swirling in the moonlight.
Cat Eyes slowly shook her head and gritted her teeth. Trunk of Tree, their supposed “leader” of this expedition had almost gotten the whole lot of them killed. And why, she wondered. The answer came to her unbidden. His pride, she thought. His stupid pride. He made up his mind without knowing the facts. Then, when he heard the facts, he refused to listen. As though his ignorance was somehow better than facts. And that ignorance and vainglorious vanity had almost destroyed all of them and instead of connecting with her people, his stupidity has nearly cost them … the Veritas might not have ever found out what had happened to them. She might never have seen Tu-Swift or Many Paths ever again. And the Veritas would have to face the Z-Lotz with seven fewer warriors and without the horses and without the knowledge to be gained by connected with the Veritas beyond the Twin Peaks.
She considered killing Trunk of Tree herself. It would be easy enough to do while he was unconscious. He knew exactly where to press hard on his neck. It had worked on one of her worst tormentors in the Z-Lotz village. She had gotten away with that because that monster, known as M-M-M, was old and terribly fat and unfit. Everyone had dismissed his death as natural. She had left no marks on his body. And she had even pretended to grieve for him … as though she had been desirous of the attentions of that cruel monster man. But no-one would believe someone as strong and fit and young as Trunk of Tree died in his sleep. If anything, they would blame Jaccim for hitting him too hard on the head in order to knock him out. It would be seen as accidental but — they were arguing right before. Too risky, perhaps. But how else to take down a leader who nearly led his own expedition to death for no reason, other than his own stupid pride at being unwilling to admit his own ignorance? Disgusting.
Trunk of Tree’s idea of “leadership” was to impose his will on others. Wasn’t that exactly the same as old M-M-M — imposing his will on her? His pleasure had seemed to come, not from the sex itself really, but from making her engage in sex against her own will. She saw Trunk of Tree as nothing more than a younger version of M-M-M and she desperately wanted to kill him in his sleep. Once he awoke, it would be much more dangerous. But it was also dangerous to let him stay their leader. Why had Many Paths even chosen him to “lead” this expedition. She must have known what kind of a person he was. Leader! Hah!