Aftermath: The Great Escape
Veritas warriors pursued the retreating Cupiditas through the forests and plains until they the Cupiditas had nearly arrived back at their central place. Then, the Veritas posted lookouts to ensure that the Cupiditas did not regroup and re-attack though they judged this unlikely. The main contingent of Veritas who had served as archers returned to the center place. When evening came, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives now sought the council of many of the Veritas as to the fate of POND MUD, ALT-R and the blinded and bitter KAVA-NUT.
Various suggestions ranged from swift killing to lengthy and painful tortures. During these discussions, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives and She-of-Many-Paths had stayed uncharacteristically quiet. At last, She-of-Many-Paths spoke quietly.
“I can well understand why so many are eager to avenge injuries and deaths on those three traitors. Consider how it is for them, for one moment. They have no place of honor among us. They played some part in a disastrous defeat for the Cupiditas. No doubt, the Cupiditas survivors would much rather blame those three than any of their own. We need to consider what is best for us as well as for them and for the Tree of Life itself. Given that they may prove troublesome in one way or another while they live, I see some wisdom in killing them. Torturing them may prove fun for some, but what does such enjoyment make us? Does it really promote the Tree of Life? I think not. We could torture them for information that proves valuable, but if you imagine yourself being tortured, would you not say what your torturer wanted to hear in order to make the torture stop? Would this really be a clear path toward truth? It seems to me that torture is more a thing for Cupiditas than the Veritas.
“It is true, as many have said, that they may have information about the Cupiditas that would be useful for us and also about the ways of the Southern Nomads and the Fierce and Formidable Warriors of the North. But I propose that I speak with them individually and in this way, attempt to see into their hearts. I cannot guarantee success, especially with ALT-R who has fooled many amongst us. Yet, let me see what I can learn and with what degree of certainty. Then, we may finish these deliberations armed with more knowledge. Besides that, it seems to me that we need to learn, if we can, how to avoid such traitors in the future. How did three of our own people work to enslave us? It may be that such is their nature and there is nothing that we could have done or do in the future, but it may also be that we could learn what we may have done wrong and prevent having such traitors in the future.”
She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives said, “I think this is a good plan. Meanwhile, we can prepare for the celebrations of two large victories and one small victory.” Many nodded in the firelight. The Veritas considered a victory in battle as reason for a small celebration, but a victory without bloodshed held seeds of future peace as well and thus was considered reason for an even greater celebration.
The tribe assented to the plan of She-of-Many-Paths and she began immediately while others made preparations for a great feast and dance.
She-of-Many-Paths thought first to query KAVA-NUT.
He screamed that he would get revenge and how it was unfair to use a giant bird to fight.
She-of-Many-Paths quietly asked, “Was it unfair to use the superior strength of three men to try to force your will on Eagle Eyes?”
KAVA-NUT screamed, “That’s what men do sometimes when the blood is high. It’s natural!”
“That is not our way, Kava-Nut, as you well know.” She-of-Many-Paths found anger rising in her own heart. She forced herself to relax so her mind would stay sharp and her heart open.
“Women choose with whom they wish to mate. And for what purpose could the people of the Veritas trust you? I would not trust you to make a cabin for it might please you to finish quickly for your own convenience without regard to strength. I would not trust you to hunt for in your eagerness to be done with it, you might scare away all such prey as might otherwise be taken. I would not trust you to grind corn for your cruelty might cause you to put small sharp flint flakes to destroy someone you did not like from the inside out. For what could I trust you? For what purpose could any among the people trust you when you would force yourself on someone else for your own pleasure with no regard to how that would affect them?”
“I don’t care! She blinded me! She can’t give me back my eyes!”
“No, but there is still a chance that you may see. Think upon it.”
“May you slowly die of thirst! I curse you! I will get even! We will attack with the Cupiditas! You will all be our slaves.”
“That’s already been tried. Surely, you know this, blind or not. The Cupiditas have been utterly defeated.”
KAVA-NUT raved on, “You’re LYING! We are going to CRUSH you! You’ll see!”
She-of-Many-Paths grew angry in spite of herself. She snorted a small laugh and shook her head as she realized that his own hatred and egotism blinded him far more severely than the Eagle had. Then she grew sad for it seemed that there was nothing that could be learned from KAVA-NUT himself. She would try another tack. “You realize that right now, the people are trying to decide whether to kill you slowly or kill you quickly. I convinced them…”
“SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP! I don’t want to hear about it! Go away! She-of-So-Many-Words-It-Drives-Everyone-Crazy.”
Despite his vitriol, She-of-Many-Paths found this funny. “I’ve argued that there may be some value in what you know. If I can’t convince them, you will likely die soon one way or another. So, you need to convince me that you have some kind of value.”
“YOU IDIOT! The Cupiditas are going to enslave you! POND MUD, NUT-PI, ALT-R. These will be your lords. Go away, slave!”
She-of-Many-Paths did not give up, but she did decide further attempts to talk right now would be fruitless. She decided to try POND MUD next to see whether he had any more insight into his own character and situation as well as those of his companions.
“POND MUD? I come to speak with you. As I promised, the Veritas are trying to decide your fate. I come now to learn whether there is anything I should know to speak on your behalf.”
“Hello, She-of-Many-Paths. I am strong. So I can help move or build things. Remember I always used to win that game – King on the Hill. Right?”
She-of-Many-Paths cast her mind back. “Here’s what I remember, POND MUD. I remember that ALT-R almost always won that game. He was at the top. But right below him, there you were, throwing everyone else off with your great strength.”
“Exactly. That’s what I was talking about!” POND MUD looked hopeful.
“You didn’t actually win, POND MUD. It was really ALT-R. He used your strength to get what he thought was best for him, not what he thought best for you or for both of you or for the Veritas as a whole. This is his way and though I don’t condone it, I understand it as a kind of blindness to his place in the universe. I don’t understand why you keep following ALT-R though he uses you for his purposes and only promises and persuades you that he cares about your welfare. So, why do you continue to believe him?”
“It just works out better when we follow his plan. I can make plans too. But they aren’t as good. His plans are better. His plan was to have all of our forces come at once on the middle way but NUT-PI didn’t like that plan. Anyway, ALT-R is my friend. I think he’s the only one who really looks out for me.”
She-of-Many-Paths sighed and shook her head. “Oh, POND MUD. There were many who liked you. And I promise you that ALT-R is not looking out for you.”
“You’re wrong. He’s told me he looks out for me. He’s said that many times.”
She-of-Many-Paths decided she could say nothing that would break POND MUD’s devotion to ALT-R. To POND MUD, POND MUD and ALT-R were inseparable; like one entity – a partnership. She-of-Many-Paths was sure that ALT-R viewed POND MUD as a useful tool. But maybe that’s not really true. I wonder how ALT-R really does view it, but extracting the truth from him would be difficult indeed. Perhaps she could try a different approach and learn something about ALT-R and probe POND MUD’s thoughts at the same time. As for the future, we should be on the lookout for this kind of exploitative relationship early. The way they played King on the Hill should have clued them in that something was amiss.
“So, POND MUD, how did you and ALT-R work together to plan this battle.”
“Well, I can’t really tell you that. You see? I would be betraying my friend, ALT-R.”
She-of-Many-Paths carefully avoided trying to question POND MUD’s premises and said instead, “I don’t see. Of course, if it were before our battles, you would be betraying your side but the battles are all over. I am guessing that you would not be welcome any more at the Cupiditas. They will almost certainly blame their loss on the three of you more than their own commanders. And, now, you see how it is. You haven’t joined your comrades in their retreat. If you were to leave now and show up so late, they would be even more inclined to think you traitorous to them. So I don’t really see how you are betraying the Cupiditas or ALT-R to tell me what your decision process was like.”
“I don’t want to say anything about it.” POND MUD lowered his head and spoke softly. “I’ve been thinking about it and I may have already betrayed him. I spoke with you and told you things I shouldn’t have. Then, later, when ALT-R asked me about it, I said that I had just seen you but that we had not spoken. So, you might have used what I said and then I should have admitted that I did talk with you. See, I’m not so perfect either. Don’t tell him though! You won’t tell him will you?” POND MUD seemed more concerned about ALT-R’s opinion of him than the fact that his very life hung in the balance.
She-of-Many-Paths sighed again. “No, POND MUD. You might want to tell him, but I’m not going to. Anyway, POND MUD, you do realize that your very life is at stake here, right? You have to be able to convince the Veritas that they can trust you again. How will you do that?”
“I wish you would do it! You’re much better at that sort of thing than I am. That’s one reason…anyway, what will you tell them?”
“I’m not sure I should speak for you, but what will you say? How can we trust you? If you do whatever ALT-R says you should do, then we can only trust you if we can trust him. But how can we trust him? If might help to understand more about how you interacted with each other and with NUT-PI and others. Do you see how you throw your lot in with someone who has guided you on a path to disaster?”
POND MUD frowned. “Well, I don’t think of it that way. ALT-R is smart. I am strong. Why shouldn’t the strong do as the smart people suggest?”
She-of-Many-Paths considered. “There is something to what you say. But you must trust such a smart person to act for all, not just for himself or herself. And if such a smart person has followers who never question that leader but go along with everything, the temptation will increase to play them for fools. That’s why we have open dialogue with as many as desire to be involved. The people have also developed various customs and rules to prevent a person who is smart from misleading them onto a path of destruction, regardless of how seductive his words might have appeared. If you cede all power to one particular person, however clever they may be, the trust we have in you can be no greater than the trust we have in that person. I have great trust in She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives. I can feel that she is trustworthy. But I also have a lifetime of experience with her actions and her words. How can any of us trust ALT-R? How can you trust him?”
POND MUD shook his head. “I don’t know. But I do. He’ll get us out of this jam. I know he will.”
She-of-Many-Paths sighed, “I will go now and relate our conversation to the council. I feel bad for you POND MUD. I see in you a good heart but one too readily given to a deceiver and a traitor. Yet my own inadequacies prevent me from finding a way to show you that which seems so obvious to me. Your path to life is a path you must carve on your own. The path you are on has led you from bad to worse and ultimately to a death before your time. You may not see things the same way. I understand that. But all the people who hold your life in their hands…do you not see that they have no reason whatever to trust ALT-R nor a POND MUD who has shown such devotion to a traitor?”
POND MUD stomped and hit his fists together. “You’ll see! ALT-R will get us free!”
She-of-Many-Paths strode away through the night replaying her recent conversations and wondering what she might have said differently. At last, it was nearly time to speak with ALT-R. Yet, she wanted to formulate a plan for such a conversation. She certainly knew she would not fall for his lies as easily as POND MUD and yet, even the prospect of sharing his space and his air filled her with a sense of foreboding and disgust. His words were like the bright red berries of the creeping nightshade — pretty to behold but a slow and subtle poison nonetheless. She paced back and forth finally deciding that she would try pumping him for information about his companions and about the Cupiditas. As She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives often said, “Even in the words of your enemies, if you look behind their hate, you may find wise counsel to guide your life.” That seemed too much to hope for. But she would discover what could be learned. If ALT-R kept avoiding the questions or giving answers that seemed lies, that would be worth noting. Yet, some seeds of truth might spill upon her consciousness in the threshing of the truth that she foresaw.
She came to his enclosure and heard him talking to someone. Or, perhaps he was greeting her, she wondered. She decided to approach quietly. She glanced through the enclosure to see ALT-R sitting in the far corner muttering to himself. She quietly padded around the enclosure so that she could listen to his musings. She was well aware that it was possible he heard her and that his seemingly spontaneous mutterings could be a show for her not an opening into his real heart but only a trap with camouflage such as the ones that the Veritas had laid at the bottom of the slippery hill to trap Cupiditas invaders. He seemed to be muttering to himself. But who knew. She could only catch some of the words.
“POND MUD. Unreliable. She-of-Many-Paths. Too many paths. But she is smart. That’s the kind of companion I should seek. Smart. We could rule together. But she likes Trunk of Tree or maybe Shadow Walker. She doesn’t like POND MUD. She might like me though. I could help her lead. It has to be her. Not Shadow Walker. Not Eagle Eyes. Damn POND MUD. He must have told her our plans! The problem is, no-one trusts me now. I have to win their trust, but how? I’ve done it before. I can do it again. But no. This time, no-one will believe me.”
She-of-Many-Paths decided to break into this monologue. “ALT-R. I have come to talk with you about your fate.”
“Oh, She-of-Many-Paths, yes, the cleverest of us all! You should be celebrating your great victory. You defeated the Cupiditas. Well done. They are a brutal people and I never should have thrown my lot in with them. But I did. I understand. Now there is nothing but death ahead. I don’t blame you. Yes. That’s what I would do. I wouldn’t expect you to show mercy now. Though some call you that. But I never believed it. Because mercy is just another name for weakness, right?”
Generally, She-of-Many-Paths had a soft warm voice, but on this occasion her voice clanged of dull iron and angry crows. “I’ll get right to the point, ALT-R. Many of the Veritas would like to see you dead. Along with KAVA NUT and POND MUD. Why should we spare you?”
ALT-R seemed in a good mood which seemed odd under the circumstances. “I can think of no reason. Can you? You seem to like wolves after all. If you can train a wolf to work with you, then maybe you could even train me?”
She-of-Many-Paths considered this. She had indeed trained some wolves. But it wouldn’t really be true to say that she trusted them exactly. Why was he bringing this up? Clever. Rather than arguing his case, he was trying to get her to do it for him. He was appealing to her vanity. Offer up a challenge. If I can train a wolf, he wants me to think I can therefore also train one such as ALT-R to be cooperative.
“I repeat my question, ALT-R. Why should we spare you? Convince me. There are many who would simply have you put to death. A slightly larger number would have you put to death slowly. A few would like to see you turned over to the Cupiditas. I suspect they relish inflicting tortures. So, why should we spare you?”
In the dim light, looking through the slats and webbing, she could see that ALT-R smiled as he answered. “I can’t think of a single reason. Can you?”
“No,” answered She-of-Many-Paths. She could see that ALT-R was trying to engage her; to make his problem into her problem. Indeed, she did feel frustrated that she could see no path to rehabilitation for any of them. Each of the traitors seemed dead set in their ways.
After a long pause, ALT-R spoke again. “I don’t see a way. I am actually quite a changed man but I see no way to prove that to you. Or to the Veritas as a whole. I see that no-one now trusts me. And why should you? I have betrayed my people. There is nothing to be done. I am sure I will die soon, slow or fast. It’s sad, to be sure, that we can train the wild wolves and trust them and not be able to train one of our own such as myself. But that’s the way of it. If you can’t think of a way to save me, I’m sure no-one else can either. Too bad in a way. We would have been such an amazing pair of rulers, you and I. And, imagine we had kids! How smart might they be! You know, POND MUD always had his eye on you. He always wanted you so, since he is my friend, I never said anything to you. I didn’t want it to become a wedge between my friend and I. And, you always seemed to like Trunk of Tree. Or, Shadow Walker. Or both? I don’t know. Is it possible to like more than one? Just as I like more than one way of looking at things.”
After another long pause, She-of-Many-Paths said, “I’m not hearing a reason that I can take to the Veritas to argue for your life.”
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t bother. I’m sure you have more important things to do. I was just musing on you and your name. I admire your ability to see things from many ways. I do like — or did like — some of the things about the Cupiditas, but on the whole, I can see that our way — the way of the Veritas — is much better. Their way is too nasty for me. Does that surprise you? I suppose you might see at least something good in their ways. Right? You can always see things in more than one way. That’s what I … what I … like about you.”
“I don’t actually know much about the Cupiditas. What can you tell me about them? What was your plan exactly? Were you going to murder us all? Enslave us? Just steal everything you could?”
“The leader of the Cupiditas, NUT-PI, I can tell you is a coward. He would not lead his people in the battle. He held back someplace safe and far removed. But he is cruel and bloodthirsty. It was his idea to kill most of you and enslave the rest. In fact, he wanted me to bring him three of the most spirited women from among the Veritas to him. His plan was to torture them into submission. He specifically asked, not for the three most beautiful, but for the three most spirited. Naturally I thought of you. And Eyes of Eagle. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t possibly be a part of anything like that.”
“So you say, ALT-R, and yet you were willing to help KAVA-NUT try to rape Eagle Eyes and lie about it.”
“Ah, yes. That was a horrible misunderstanding. KAVA-NUT, you must realize, convinced me and also POND MUD, that Eagle Eyes really wanted KAVA-NUT but was just too shy to make it obvious to him. Also she feared that Fleet of Foot would perhaps be jealous and kill them both. Anyway, I am glad I was able to prevent having you snatched away. But I don’t expect special treatment for saving you, She-of-Many-Paths. It was just that I couldn’t really bear the thought of you with NUT-PI. You don’t know how cruel he is, but I do. He is not the man for you. Ruthless. Powerful. Clever too. But I see how you could prefer someone less clever such as Trunk of Tree or Shadow Walker. Someone who is just — you know — an okay person. Not really worthy of a leader such as yourself. Well, that’s why…you know…you and I are both leaders. In that one way at least, we are similar. But I can see why you would prefer someone less smart than you. Being with me, you would always be second guessing whether what I am saying is true. You’re probably even wondering that now though I am simply telling you the truth.”
She-of-Many-Paths found this entire web of lies interesting in that, despite her knowing full well that ALT-R probed for a weakness and wanted to poison her mind, it still had some slight effect. No wonder POND MUD fell for his trickery. But in the end, ALT-R’s words were no more meaningful than the winds whispering in the leaves of the birches near the stream.
“Goodbye, ALT-R. I will report on our conversation to the council. Like all among the Veritas, you have received a great and wondrous gift, the gift of speaking and of weaving words together to make stories. This is a gift more splendid than any other imaginable. For it allows us to work together and improve things over time. Yet, you pervert this gift. You use false stories merely as a way to manipulate others and get your way. It is a pity in much the same way it would be for a fish to bite off its own fins or an eagle to tear out its own eyes. It is the one true gift that humankind has and instead of using it as it is meant to be used…goodbye.”
She walked away, feeling as though she needed to bathe in a stream so as to remove the slather of lies that he had spewed upon her. She would need to scrub with horsetails as well, she reckoned. And so she did at last donning clean bright clothes for the celebrations which lasted three days and two nights. When all had eaten their fill and danced unto oblivion, the Veritas smoked of the devil weed and considered again the issue of what to do with the three traitors.
A variety of interesting and painful tortures were considered. Many others simply wanted them dead as quickly as possible. They viewed them as a virulent tumor that must be excised from the people.
After all ideas were considered but no clear consensus emerged, She-of-Many-Paths began to speak.
“I do not trust any of the three. I feel that they are every bit as corrupt as when we first vanquished them. If anything, ALT-R has grown more clever in his lies. POND MUD will follow ALT-R no matter what. KAVA-NUT has gone mad so far as I can tell. I could experience some joy at their severe pain, but I do not wish to enjoy such as that. I fear that such tortures could make us more like the Cupiditas. What would be the point of our defeating such an enemy if we become that enemy?
“You all know that these three traitors have some skills but excellent stalking is not one that any of them has. I was able to see POND MUD long before he saw me, and I am not the most skilled tracker amongst us. KAVA-NUT is blind. ALT-R is a problem. I suggest we cut out his tongue and set free the three of them, again banishing them. We shall make it clear that they must leave our lands for good and any of them who returns will be killed on sight. Then, I would like our best trackers to follow them for a five day’s journey; to overhear and report back on the conversations amongst the three. I judge there may yet be things to learn from them, but we will not gather such intelligence while they are captive. We may gather it when they are free and do not know they are being followed.”
Shadow Walker said, “You say you do not want to torture them but you want to cut out ALT-R’s tongue?”
“Yes. I do think it is a necessary precaution. He lies as easily as you breathe, Shadow Walker. He is not using his gift of speech to help the Veritas spin a stronger weave that can hold us together under all circumstances. Rather, he uses his gift only to try to divide us and weaken us. It is, for him, a weapon of conquest rather than a tool of many thinking together. Without a tongue, I do not think he will be able to start any more wars and the quiet might enable POND MUD to reflect upon how he has been manipulated.”
The tribe puzzled and dialogued for three days but in the end decided to follow the suggestion of She-of-Many-Paths. As could be expected, ALT-R found the prospect of losing his tongue a horror beyond belief. Yet, it was done. After ALT-R had recovered from the tongue extraction and subsequent cauterization, the three were given some small provisions and accompanied to the edge of the lands of the Veritas. Here, they were sent on their way and admonished never to return. The three marched east and then south and for five days, as had been planned, the trio were followed. On the fifth day, the Veritas trackers headed back and reported on what they had observed to She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives and She-of-Many-Paths.
The first night, KAVA-NUT and POND MUD had gotten into an altercation around their campfire which had ended when POND MUD threw KAVA-NUT to the ground. KAVA-NUT’s skull had crashed into a sharp rock that had been placed to help contain the fire. There was not a lot of bleeding but in the morning, ALT-R and POND MUD discovered that he had died in the night. ALT-R had tremendous difficulty trying to manipulate POND MUD without the power of his tongue. Yet, he managed to convince him that they should split up. It seemed that ALT-R suspected that they were being followed though he gave no obvious indication of this. From drawings in the dirt near the campfire, it appeared that ALT-R and POND MUD were to rendezvous in three days time near the lands where the wondering Nomads of the South sometimes ventured. ALT-R cut POND MUD, apparently so that he could leave a false trail of blood which he did. In fact, POND MUD made a number of false trails. The trackers, still unseen by POND MUD watched him circle back to the rendezvous spot. POND MUD’s wound was festering and he began ranting with fever. Still, ALT-R did not show up at the rendezvous spot. He became incoherent. The trackers debated whether they should leave him to die or try to help him. At last, they approached POND MUD cautiously.
“POND MUD. Do not fight. We will help you heal your wound. Then we must return to the Veritas.”
“Go away. I’m waiting for ALT-R. He will cure me.”
“I am not so sure about that. But you need help now. Your wound has never healed properly. There are some ant hives nearby. We will use the soldier ants to stitch together your wound.”
POND MUD began to rant and rave. “ANTS! ANTS! NO ANTS! That will hurt! They are NOT Strong! It’s a lie! She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives sent you didn’t she?! I hate them! Leave me alone. ALT-R will come soon. Away! Away!”
“Just listen for a moment, POND MUD. You are very sick. We can use the pincers of the ants to bind the wound. I’ve done it before. Once they bite, you separate the head and it stays put thus stitching your skin together. Their venom hurts but somehow cleans the wound. It’s your best chance. Let us try to save you.”
“It’s her fault! I will kill you all! You’ll see! The Cupiditas will be here soon. I hate…I hate…no ants. No ants. I am very strong. I can still kill you! You’ll see! ALT-R will save me.” The trackers decided to back off and observe POND MUD from a safe distance. They hoped his mood might change later and they could still save him. But when they approached again a few hours later, POND MUD’s large, well-muscled lifeless body lay arms akimbo. They pried his right hand open and there clutched very tightly between forefinger and thumb was a crushed ant. This seemed an odd task to set oneself just as one lay dying. Perhaps, they speculated, he was tying to bind his wounds with ant pincers himself.
The trackers who had been following ALT-R saw signs that he entered a river but could not pick up his trail on the other side. They went both upstream and downstream for a fair distance but saw no sign that ALT-R had emerged on the other side.
She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives sighed. “So, two of our traitors are dead after all. And, the third we don’t really know anything about.”
One of the trackers shook his head, “We are pretty sure he must have been swept away in the river. We saw clearly where he entered but there was no exit on the other side.”
She-of-Many-Paths said, “No, I strongly suspect that he never intended to go to the other side. He went down stream a ways and may be returning toward us.”
The tracker frowned. “But then he would have never made it to the rendezvous spot shown on the crude map he drew at the campfire. POND MUD seemed quite convinced that he was going to show up there. And save him. Somehow.”
She-of-Many-Paths nodded. “Yes, I have no doubt that’s what POND MUD believed. But that was never part of ALT-R’s plan. He sent POND MUD just to draw you away from tracking him. I suspect he’s out there somewhere. You could go back to the river and check this side to pick up his trail.It may be too late. I am sorry now that I counseled this course of action for one of these three evil ones yet lives. We did destroy his worst weapon but now…I don’t know for sure, but this is what I strongly suspect: I think he will sneak back here and try to wreak some kind of revenge.”
“As do I,” added She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives. “As do I.”