He had mastered juggling four sacks, or four rocks and had been working all morning on five, but with little success. Sooz shook her head and chuckled good-naturedly. “Don’t give up, Tu-Swift. You’ll get there.” Then, after a pause, she added, “Though you may be an old man with a long white beard.”
“What? You’ll pay for that!” He began to chase her around the training space. Being lighter, Sooz could turn more quickly. After a few moments, Cat Eyes appeared. Tu-Swift called out, “Help me catch this fox! I can’t turn fast enough!”
Cat Eyes laughed as well. With a serious note in her voice, she added, “You shouldn’t be trying to turn fast. Let your knee heal, would you?”
Tu-Swift’s face darkened for a moment. The ground around them also grew dark as a passing cloud momentarily blocked the sun. He wondered briefly whether he would ever really regain his speed and mobility. Then, just as the ground grew sunny again, so did his face. Time would tell. Meantime…
Just then, he heard the deep voice of Jaccim. He was trying, but largely failing, to speak Veritas. With the help of Cat Eyes, he eventually made himself clear. He had asked why they were playing when there was likely to be a war which they should all be preparing for. They had been “marked” for war. This was no time for juggling nonsense or for laughing.
Tu-Swift replied, “Hello, Jaccim. I see you brought your own clouds with you.”
Sooz and Cat Eyes both laughed, though in a friendly way. Tu-Swift continued, “Jaccim, this is the way of the Veritas. Don’t you ever play?”
Jaccim’s head snapped back and he frowned. He spoke and Cat Eyes translated. “Me? Certainly not! Play is for small children. Not someone your age. All of you should be preparing for war. It is serious.”
Many Paths who strode into the training area overheard the last part of the translated conversation. She smiled at all of them and supplemented her Veritas with sign language so that Jaccim would directly understand as much as possible. “You are right. It is serious. This is why we play. We need weapons. New weapons. Weapons that no-one will suspect. That is why we watch and listen to those whose minds are like water flooding over new plains. They will go ways that we cannot foresee. Nor can others. What shall we care who wins a war if life holds no joy? Every moment now is precious. This is what the Veritas always teach. But now that we may be on the brink of destruction, joy is more important than ever.”
Jaccim frowned and answered with a mixture of sign language and broken Veritas. “What may be gained by juggling bags or rocks? It is foolish.”
Many Paths smiled at Tu-Swift. She put her hand into a fold of her tunic and brought out a knife and casually tossed it to Tu-Swift. She quickly threw him two more. He easily caught all three and began juggling the three knives.
Jaccim opened his mouth to speak, but before he could formulate his answer in the tongue of the Veritas, he heard three odd sounds a little like a horse’s whinny and a little like a large rock hitting a tree trunk. He frowned and then his mouth dropped open farther as he saw all three knives sticking out of three nearby tree trunks. Tu-Swift had thrown all three underhand and hard into three targets. Jaccim tried to speak but nothing came out. It wasn’t that he did not know the Veritas words for what he wanted to say. There were no words. Even a sensible language like ROI could not help him. Tu-Swift, meanwhile, calmly walked over and wiggled each of the knives out and handed them back to Many Paths.
She smiled at Tu-Swift and continued out of the clearing. As she reached the edge she looked back over her shoulder and said, “Keep up the good work.”
Jaccim understood her words but not her thinking. She was supposed to be the leader. Yet she spoke of joy and play even though they would likely soon be at war. It made no sense, thought Jaccim. It’s what comes, he thought, of having a woman as leader. We would not have a woman as leader. Not the ROI. Nor would the Z-Lotz. It’s all foolishness. As the Veritas will soon discover for themselves. How had these people defeated the ROI and destroyed his village?
Tu-Swift called out, “Many Paths! Have you a moment? I wish to show you something else!”
Many Paths turned back, “I am on my way to meet up with Shadow Walker but I can see what else you have first.”
Tu-Swift glanced at Sooz and once he had caught her eye, gestured over toward a contraption they had constructed at the end of the training compound. Two vines were suspended from a strong overhanging branch. The vines looped through a thick wooden plank which lay parallel to the ground. Sooz lifted a leg over the plank coquettishly as she smiled at Tu-Swift. He walked around behind her and pushed. He found pushing her surprisingly pleasurable and his cheeks flushed.
Sooz swung forward and then arced back toward Tu-Swift. Just as she stopped, he pushed her again. Each time, he pushed at just the right time and she swung higher and higher. After a score of pushes, he changed the timing so that he pushed against her momentum and gradually slowed her to a stop.
Jaccim shook his head. He could see no reason for such frivolity.
Tu-Swift walked over to Many Paths. “We had been swinging on a single vine and Sooz thought this would work — and it did. But the thing we really wanted to show you is this. He walked over to a small pile of straps made of softened hide. He put a stone in a small, broad but shallow pit in the strap. He motioned for the others to stand behind a nearby tree and peek out. He put both ends of the strap in his hand and began whirling it around his head. He suddenly let go of one end and the stone went flying. It thunked loudly into one of the small, dead pine trunks that had been partly buried in the ground. Many Paths led the others over to see the result. The stone lay buried in the trunk. She nodded. “Nice,” she said.
Many Paths nodded again. “Yes. This is good. You have an almost endless supply of stones. Imagine these flying into an army from many directions at once. It will be hard to defend against.” Many Paths smiled again at Tu-Swift and set off to meet up with Shadow Walker.
As Many Paths left the clearing, she ducked under an overhanging branch of Witch Hazel and spoke aloud, “Thank you for your medicine.” She walked down a sweetly curving path toward a small spring. Three pink flowers, Lady Slippers, poked their heads through the dark greenery. She began thinking about the sedation caused by Lady Slippers and recalled what She Who Saves Many Lives had said. “After the sedation wears off, one may be nervous and high strung for a time.” Many Paths had only tried it twice and she experienced exactly what the elder had described both times. It had felt a lot like the way that the roots of Sweet Flag made her feel. But after the effects of Sweet Flag wore off, it made her feel tired and groggy. Odd, she thought.
She chuckled at the swinging seat that Tu-Swift and Sooz had created though she couldn’t see how that led to the sling weapon he had shown her. It all had to do with the timings of the pushes, she reminded herself. Suddenly, many paths stopped.
She thought of the swing, the pushes, the Lady Slippers, and the Sweet Flag. What if… what if I pushed with a little Lady Slipper and then… just when it began to wear off, I pulled with some Sweet Flag…a person might become very nervous and want more Lady Slipper… what would happen if they were pushed and pulled higher and higher? I wouldn’t poison the person exactly. Would it tear the body apart? Tearing the people apart with such pushes seemed to be what was indicated in the strange tales scribed into the sheaf of leaves that had been discovered by Lion Slayer and Eagle Eyes. Could that really happen? Was there a way to tear apart the Z-Lotz? Was there a way to tear apart the Veritas? And, if so, how could it be prevented?