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Religious Themed Stories / The Game of God - Chapter 3

     The faithful will listen to the words of God and ponder them in their heart. For those that will not listen to the words of God, His wrath shall be poured out against them. - The Book of the Prophets of God, the wisdom of the Prophets.

   

   Time to send the green brothers packing, politely, Zothor thought. LaDajon had been summoned to his office and now stood before the dwelling clan leader. Ommaro, a solider of the dwelling, also sat in the corner of the dwelling clan leader’s office. “Much has happened since you have arrived,” Zothor began. “I hope you have been well cared for? I have not had time of late to give any thought of returning you to your dwelling.”

   “With good cause,” LaDajon said.

   “My thanks for your help in the search even though it was fruitless.”

   “I am only glad that everything turned out well for you.”

   “An experiment in friendship that has paid off. I thank you for your cooperation in that and I hope you were not inconvenienced during your stay here,” Zothor said.

   “You are the greatest of hosts, and we were not inconvenienced in the least. I have found it most interesting to be this close to live tree dwellers. They are not at all what I expected,” LaDajon said. “I expected something wilder and dirtier. I think we will all come away with a different view of tree dwellers.”

   “Good,” Zothor said. “I have given much thought to returning you to your dwelling as of late and Ommaro here has asked for the honor of leading your escort. So, when could you be ready to leave?”

   “I could leave now, but I think it’s best to start in the morning. We have been away from our home for far too long.”

   “Ommaro will be ready to leave tomorrow morning then.”

   “We will be ready. We thank our blue brothers for their help.”

   “We are glad we could be of service to the Green Brotherhood.” LaDajon turned and left to tell his brothers that they would be leaving in the morning.

   Ommaro moved away from the corner and looked at the dwelling clan leader with all four eyes. “I asked to be his escort?” he said with a certain amount of disdain in his voice. “I don’t recall asking.”

   “You will do more than escort them,” Zothor said. “I want a report of anything you see that’s not right or out of the ordinary. Rate the dwelling on their service. See what kind of wildlife is around. How big are the herds? I want to know everything about the green brothers’ dwelling that you can find out. Map the dwelling if you can.”

   “Expecting trouble?”

   “No, but something Tangoral said is bothering me and I want to check on the conditions of the dwelling, their land and the wilderness that separates us.”

   “Weapons?”

   “Twin heavy guns with extra ammo.”

   “Then you are expecting trouble?” Ommaro asked.

   “You’ve got a long ways to go and heavy guns and lots of ammo can solve a lot of problems along the way,” Zothor replied.

   “So most likely there will be no trouble, but there could be, but you don’t know what kind, so I should be prepared for anything. Once there I am to look for problems, but you don’t know what kind, so I’m to look at everything. Then if I’m still alive I should return and report what I’ve seen and heard.”

   “Something like that but keep in mind the problem is in the wilderness and could prove to be a danger to the brotherhood and free travel. So if you get there you still have to get back and your group will be smaller,” Zothor said.

   “Where is Brother Tangoral, I would like to talk with him and perhaps get more information?” Ommaro asked.

   “He is with the craft master I believe,” Zothor said. Ommaro turned and left the office. He was a solider being sent into battle against an unknown enemy. Tangoral would know more, hopefully.

   

   Sokegal turned the cart over again to look once more at the casts that held the wheel in place. “It didn’t hold up did it,” he announced finally.

   “I could have told you that,” Cantor said.

   “Shouldn’t you be in your room or something?” the craft master asked turning an eye on Cantor. “The repair held up better the original parts. What is this made of?”

   Tangoral turned the cart around on the table where the craft master set it so they could both view the cast on the wheel. “It’s made of soft leaves and tree sap. I wrapped it all the way around to hold all the broken parts together,” Tangoral replied.

   “The same as you made for Kobeta’s legs.”

   “This is much lighter; his casts had to be stronger to hold his weight.”

   “Tree sap?” Sokegal asked himself. “What else do you make out of tree sap?”

   “Plates, knives, jars and pots, boxes, just about everything you make out of metal we can make out of tree sap,” Tangoral replied. “Our floors and roofs are made out of tree sap and leaves.”

   Sokegal could not believe his ears. Tangoral and his people had developed a non-metal technology. Sokegal knew this technology could propel the clan into a leadership role for the Blue Brotherhood. Zothor could possibly become a counselor or clan leader of the Blue Brotherhood. This knowledge would give great status and wealth to the dwelling and anyone connected with this new technology. “We will have to set up a group to study the properties of tree sap,” he said. Sokegal saw Ommaro come into the craft hall out of one his eyes. He didn’t think much of soldiers. Sokegal never understood why Zothor insisted on having soldiers.

   “Brother Tangoral, may I have a moment of your time?” Ommaro asked as he walked up.

   “Certainly,” Tangoral replied.

   “Zothor is sending me to escort the green brothers home and suggested that it could be dangerous, but he couldn’t tell me exactly what sort of danger. I was hoping you could give me some idea of what kind of danger I could run into?”

   “Stalkers, take anyone who can shoot well on the run with you. Shoot a stalker in the head and get out of the way of the dying body is the only advice I can give you, that and don’t miss,” Tangoral replied. “Take enough ammo to fight a running battle for two or three days. Don’t stay long and you should be ok. Stalkers like to stay near the ground, but they sometimes hunt higher up when the food is scarce. Food is very scarce where you’re going. You might run into a long neck or two as well. Does any of this help?”

   “Yes it does. It tells me that I need to stay alert and take lots of extra ammo.” Ommaro left thinking about where to store the extra ammo he might need and the brothers he would take with him.

   “I really don’t understand why we have soldiers. We have not had a war for almost two thousand cycles of the sun,” Sokegal said after Ommaro left.

   “If you must send someone into danger, isn’t it better to send someone trained to deal with those kind of problems rather than someone who is not?” Tangoral asked. “Be glad Zothor practices the old ways and clings rigidly to the law of the prophets.”

   “Don’t get me wrong, I support the dwelling clan leader.”

   “Ommaro most likely will be attacked by stalkers on the return from the green brothers dwelling. Would you like to take his place?”

   “No, of course not.”

   “Then you need someone like Ommaro who will go willingly where common sense tells you not to. I suspect ‘soldier’ is not a good choice of words to describe what it is the modern day soldier is and does,” Tangoral said.

   “I think you’re right. What I don’t like is the word and all the symbolism and meaning it calls to mind,” Sokegal said.

   “Then find a new word. Do we have a crew set up for tomorrow?”

   “Yes, I plan to rotate my craftsmen during the construction. It will expose them to new ways of doing things and new ideas. I suspect that as we merge our two cultures together, how we do many things will change.” The tree dwellers would start construction on a small platform in the tree above the dwelling the next day. Sokegal’s craftsmen would all get the chance to study tree dweller construction techniques in the coming seven-days.

   “We will build a small platform first so my people will have a staging area to work from, and it will also serve as home for the people of my tribe that stayed,” Tangoral said.

   “They are not going to stay in the dwelling?” Sokegal asked.

   “No, they are not as comfortable around you hard-shells as I am. I think that may change as they learn to communicate with the brothers.”

   “Why is that?”

   “Why is what?”

   “Why are you different from other tree dwellers? Why did you make contact with us?” Sokegal asked.

   “I wanted to learn everything the Brachyura knew and then I wanted to kill you with that knowledge. I wanted revenge for the killing of my people and my family,” Tangoral replied. “Not very noble reasons.”

   “What changed?”

   “I lost the anger in my heart one rainy night, washed away by the rain and a mother’s love for a strange new child.”

   “The Lady Ishihari.”

   “Now, I find it hard not to think of her as my mother, even though I don’t think of Zothor as my father.”

   “I can see that, but what about the rest of the brothers and sisters?” Sokegal asked. “How do you feel about them?”

   “I would not care to find any of you over a cook fire,” Tangoral said. “I have made many friends here, yet, I lack something. Tragal said it best when he said I have yet to discover the true meaning of the term brother as it applies to you. Sometimes I get a glimpse of its meaning and then it fades away just before I can get a hold of it. What did you think of a tree dweller coming to live with you?”

   “I don’t think many of us liked the idea,” the craft master replied. “It has always been believed that tree dwellers are wild, fierce, dirty, stupid creatures. All the tree dwellers I have seen and met so far did not live up to their reputation. There is nothing wild, dirty, stupid, or fierce about you. All the brothers and sisters that have met you have given good reports about you and the other tree dwellers. Every time we turn around we owe you another debt of honor. I find that you are creatures of honor like us. We are the same only the form is different. Now we weep in sorrow when you leave us, and cry for joy when you return. I with pride call you my brother even though you don’t understand what that means. I also call you my son for saving the life of my son Leygal. All the new ideas that have flowed recently from this dwelling have originated in your mind. We can never repay what we owe you.”

   “All this by chance because we have taken a chance.”

   “No, all this is because of one honorable act of kindness,” Sokegal said pointing at Cantor with his right claw.

   “So now we are your only family sort of,” Cantor said.

   “By default, yes. I had an older sister, but she went out to explore the world and never came back. She was like me. I’d like to believe that she is a healer in another tribe somewhere with a family of her own,” Tangoral said.

   “Would she know as much as you?” Cantor asked.

   “Maybe, but probably not, and I doubt that she lives with any hard-shells or has a hard-shell brother that will wish in a moment he had stayed in his room.” Tangoral’s sharp ears picked up the sound of Ishihari’s rapid walking pace just before she entered the craft hall.

   “There you are! Cantor what part of grounded didn’t you understand,” Ishihari demanded of her son.

   “It’s my fault I thought the craft master could use a first hand account of how this new cart worked and why it broke,” Tangoral said. The craft master knew better than to get between a mother having a problem with her child.

   “Grounded is grounded and he knows it, and the craft master is probably more interested in your repairs than why it broke. Cantor you can add another seven-day.”

   “But Mom, that’s three seven-days,” Cantor whined.

   “Want to try for four? Can you find your room or do I need to get you an escort?”

   The escort would be his father and Cantor did not want any part of that. “I can find it,” he said as he headed for the nearest door.

   “That was a good try Tangoral, but he knew he shouldn’t have left his room. Don’t worry he’ll get time off for good behavior, if he behaves,” Ishihari said. Her great claw gently stroked the back of her other son. “Hard at planning for tomorrow?” she asked.

   “A little, tomorrow will take care of itself. Too much planning is not always a good thing,” Tangoral replied.

   “Tell Zothor that. I’m sorry for the interruption craft master.”

   “We were about done here anyway Lady Ishihari,” Sokegal said.

   “I’ll walk out with you. Good evening to you craft master,” Tangoral said.

   “Good evening to you my son,” the craft master replied.

   

   “How did you know my story wasn’t the truth?” Tangoral asked as he walked down the hallway with Ishihari.

   “You’re his brother, I expected you to try and cover for him. When I tell a child, mine or anybody else’s, to go to their room, I expect them to stay there. Cantor knew this and yet he chose to disobey. I am certain you did not encourage him to disobey me,” Ishihari replied. “This is a phase he will grow out of in time.”

   “I did come get the cart from Cantor for the craft master to look at.”

   “And Cantor followed you back to the craft hall.”

   “Well, yeah he did.”

   “Cantor is not my only son Tangoral; I’ve been through all this before. I’m a mother; I have eyes in the back of my shell.”

   “I’ll remember that mother.” Tangoral loved to talk with Ishihari as he could with his own mother. It was one of the things he loved about Ishihari. They turned down another hallway and almost collided with a young female tree dweller. “Ashorah,” Tangoral exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

   “I got lost looking around the hard-shells’ home.” Ashorah was actually hoping to run into Tangoral.

   “Ashorah, this is my hard-shell mother Ishihari,” Tangoral said by way of an introduction.

   “I am pleased to meet you Ashorah,” Ishihari said perfectly in the language of the tree people.

   “You speak our language,” Ashorah said a little surprised.

   “I was one of the first adults among my people to learn your language.” Ishihari could tell there was something between these two tree dwellers in the way they looked at each other. “Of course having a tree dweller for a son was a big help in learning your language.”

   “She’s your mother?” It was a loaded question full of how and whys.

   “Yes, she is. I was adopted for saving the life of her son.”

   “Tangoral, why don’t you show Ashorah around our home; we can talk later,” Ishihari said. “Ashorah, it was a pleasure to meet you.”

   “Mother, it is not our custom that we should be alone with each other. We should return with you,” Tangoral said wishing he could take back the words he just spoke.

   “It’s your custom, not ours, but I suspect it’s a custom that’s broken often.” Ishihari turned and walked down the hallway and out of sight before Tangoral could think to follow.

   “She’s nice, I like her,” Ashorah said standing there looking at Tangoral and smiling.

   “She is nice, and she makes a great mother.” Tangoral reached down took Ashorah’s hand and pulled her closer to him. He released her hand as she stepped closer. “We should go,” he said.

   “Why, I don’t want to go right now. Right now, I don’t want to be a tree dweller,” Ashorah said. Her smile got sweeter and her eyes brighter. Tangoral could feel her heart beat as her arms slipped around him. “I want to be a hard-shell. I want to be held by the son of a hard-shell.” A moment later they were locked in a passionate embrace that Tangoral wished could last forever as her lips found his.

   

   Tangoral had never been to the armory before. This was where all the guns and ammo were kept. Only the leadership and soldiers had guns in their home. All other weapons were kept here, but the armory is also the soldier’s headquarters and last line of defense for the medical section. Tangoral forgot to tell Ommaro something about stalkers and that was why he was there. He had never visited this part of the dwelling. He had never had a good reason before. As he walked in he saw four carts of heavy guns and ammo sitting next to the door waiting for the right occasion to be pushed out to waiting claws.

   “Greetings brother, I was wondering how long it would be before you would come down here,” Tragal said stepping out from behind a rack of light guns. “There are five brothers on duty here at all times. We have heavier guns in the back if you’d like to see.”

   “I came down here looking for Ommaro, but if you want to show me guns, I’ll look,” Tangoral said.

   “Well, you’re in luck I can find Ommaro and show you the guns at the same time. Ommaro is picking up guns and ammo for his mission, if you can call escorting the green brothers home a mission.”

   “It’s a secret mission and I’m here with some vital information he needs to know in order for him to complete his mission. Now you know too much and must be killed for the good of the mission. You are to kill yourself after you get off work.”

   “Soldiers don’t get off work,” Tragal said.

   “In that case we’ll let you live,” Tangoral joked.

   Weapon storage was a good size room where most of the really big guns were kept. Most were small cannons. There were also a few personal weapons and twenty rocket launchers; five of the launchers could launch multiple rockets. The ammo for all the weapons were kept in a room behind the weapon storage room, and could only be entered by first passing through the weapon storage room. Tangoral wondered if all dwellings were set up the same way. “Are all dwellings set up this way?” he asked.

   “More or less,” Tragal replied. “We are more secure than most. Very few dwellings do little more than just store weapons and ammo. None guard their weapons as well as we do.”

   “How many dwellings have soldiers?”

   “I believe we are the only one among the clans that still has soldiers that drill often in the ways of war. There are other dwellings that may have soldiers, but they are not well supported by their leadership and they are not as well trained as we are. A dwelling might have a few light cannons, but no one has rocket launchers any more.”

   “If no one has the weapons to fight with, why do we?” Tangoral asked.

   “Because Zothor keeps the old ways and all the laws of the prophets. We cherish our peace, our families, and our dwelling, and we are prepared to defend those things that we hold dear,” Tragal replied. “Here’s Ommaro. Ommaro, Tangoral has come to see you.”

   “Greetings brother,” Ommaro said.

   “I forgot to tell you something very important about stalkers.”

   “What?”

   “Stalkers do not travel about at night often. They will return to their home tree or the site of their kill if they are too far from their home to reach it before nightfall,” Tangoral said. “If they do not catch you during the day you can always escape them at night.”

   “Then the best way to escape stalkers is to run and hold out ‘till nightfall. Then climb up into the trees and keep moving for a while,” Ommaro said.

   “Right, except if the stalkers are very hungry they could stop for the night still on your trail and not return home. They would keep tracking you the next day. So I’d keep moving all night and into the next day. If they do not see you again for a half a day or so they will give up and go hunt something else. Also, if you can lead them to another food source they will stop hunting you.”

   “What kind of guns would you recommend?”

   “Twin guns, short heavy ones that won’t hang up on anything if you have to turn suddenly in a small area. Something easy to use and quick to load and can shoot straight close up and far off,” Tangoral replied. “Remember, you’re aiming at their head and you don’t want to miss. A stalker can be hurt very badly and will recover from its wounds long after it has killed and eaten you.”

   “Maybe I should take a couple of light cannons. That would blow a stalker in half,” Ommaro said.

   “Part of that stalker would still try and kill you for a few moments until it realized it was dead.”

   “This is also just an escort, and we don’t want to alarm the green brothers,” Tragal said. “Taking heavy guns will be alarming enough. Cannons might be perceived in a bad light, and make it harder to complete your mission.”

   “Then I should take short heavy guns and maybe a couple long heavy guns for real long shots too.”

   “Take extra food as well,” Tangoral said.

   “Why?” Ommaro asked.

   “Just in case you get lost or are unable to be re-supplied.”

   “Anything else?”

   “No, just don’t get caught sleeping,” Tangoral said.

   “How many brothers are going with you?” Tragal asked Ommaro.

   “Eight, two teams of four, all soldiers.”

   “Then you should be ready for anything short of going to war.”

   “I hope so. Between Zothor and Tangoral they make it sound like I might not make it back in one piece,” Ommaro said.

   “I’m sure Zothor wants you to be prepared for anything,” Tangoral said. “Most likely you will find that stalker attacks on the herds are on the rise in certain areas of the dwelling’s land, but if you find that attacks on the herds are happening all over, leave as soon as you can.”

   “What does it mean if the stalkers are attacking the herds all over?” Tragal asked.

   “First, it means that the dwelling is surrounded by hungry stalkers. The green brothers will bring their herds closer into the dwelling for protection. The stalkers will follow them in and then one day they will raid the dwelling for food. You can spook a herd into running, but they will not run if they are defending themselves from a predator. When shunails defend themselves as a group they are not an easy meal and stalkers always prefer an easy meal. Stalker will respect the green brothers’ guns, but the green brothers will still represent an easier meal than a herd of shunails,” Tangoral replied. “It will also mean that more than one or two tribes have banded together in a common search for food.”

   “How many stalkers are we talking about?” Ommaro asked.

   “A tribe is about twenty strong, with more females than males. Two tribes may have forty adults or more all together and they might not band together, but three or four tribes in the same area will band together and could have eighty or more adults. More than half of those will be females trying to feed their young. Male stalkers are lazy and don’t go out and hunt often. The females do most of the hunting for the tribe and their families. The males tend to live off what the females kill, but they will hunt for themselves or with the females from time to time. The hungrier they are the more likely that is to be the case. If they’re hungry enough male stalkers will eat their young.”

    “A raid by eighty stalkers could destroy a dwelling,” Tragal said.

   “Yes it could. It is a great weapon in the hands of those knowledgeable enough to use it,” Tangoral said.

   “How?” asked Ommaro.

   “It is possible to goad the stalkers into attacking.”

   “Who would be able to do that?” Tragal asked.

   “Not many. I could do it, and maybe a few other healers could do it as well. It would take a great injustice before a healer, if they had the knowledge, would do such a thing,” Tangoral said.

   “Could you tell someone how to do it?”

   “Yes, but healers hate to give away trade secretes, and to have the knowledge to control the behavior of stalkers would be a rare and closely guarded secret.”

   “Would it be hard to get the stalkers to attack?” Ommaro asked.

   “No, it is a very simple thing to do,” Tangoral replied.

   “Then why couldn’t anybody do it?” Tragal asked.

   “To understand how to do it you would have to spend many cycles of the large moon studying stalkers and their habits. Few would or could take the time to do that and it is very dangerous to study stalkers. Not many would dare such an adventure.”

   “We should let Ommaro get back to work,” Tragal said.

   “Thank you for your advice and words of wisdom. I shall take them to heart,” Ommaro said to Tangoral.

   Tragal walked Tangoral out of the armory. “Did you use the stalkers to kill the brothers that killed your family and friends and burned you out of your home?” he asked as they were walking.

   “The duty of a healer is to avenge the honor of the dead in the service of justice. Very few healers have a great enough knowledge to fulfill that part of their duty to the fullest,” Tangoral replied.

   “That’s not an answer.”

   “You already know the answer. You’re alive because your death would not serve justice or bring honor to the dead.”

   “I’m alive because it didn’t fit into the plans of a young and very powerful healer to let me die,” Tragal said.

   “Either way you still owe me your life. Why do you wish to know this?”

   “So I can satisfy my desire to know the truth of what happened to those brothers.”

   “The justice of my people caught up to those brothers who killed my family and friends and destroyed my home. The honor of the dead was redeemed and my duty fulfilled. You’re alive because it didn’t fit into my plans at the time to let Zothor die. Does that help put your mind at ease or would you like all the gory details?” Tangoral asked.

   “Yes, it does put my mind at rest, and no, I do not need to know all the details,” Tragal replied.

   

   Tangoral rose early to search for the best places to enter the grandfather tree without harming the tree too greatly. He had marked six places before Sheylmasa and the others joined him. A time part later Zothor, Sokegal and the brothers that would be working with the tree dwellers arrived. Tangoral glanced at Ashorah when the brothers began to climb up onto the branch near where she was working. She smiled at him and he felt a fire rise up inside himself, he smiled back. To her credit she did not stop working to stare at the brothers as some of the others did. “Greetings brothers,” he said when they all stood on the same branch.

   “Greetings my son,” Zothor replied. “I brought you some help.”

   “I brought a translator so the help will understand what needs to be done,” Sokegal said. Leygal stood behind his father.

   “Cotayoak is the head builder,” Tangoral said. Cotayoak waved his hand so the hard-shells would know which tree dweller he was. “He will oversee all phases of the construction. You will get your instructions from him. I know that most of you are craftsmen and builders. You may see things that you could do better or differently, resist the temptation to do so. You are here to learn our method of construction so do it our way for now. Please take notes of any improvements in our construction method you think could be made. We will talk about them later at some point.”

   “It is hoped that as we blend our technologies together new ideas will be born, but the first step is to understand the tree dwellers’ technology. The only way we can do that, it is felt, is to learn to do things the way tree dwellers do them,” Sokegal said. “Notes are to be kept.”

   “Cotayoak, what would you like us to do first?” Zothor asked.

   “We are at present gathering the materials to build the platforms from which we will live and work. I would like for most of you to cut the branches for the beams and supports we will need. The rest of you will cut and shape them to size and help us set them in place as the branches are brought in. Our women will go with you to show you which branches to cut at first. If you work half as well as the old wise one you call Tangalen, we should have most of this platform built and ready for the floor to be poured,” Cotayoak said. “The platforms we are building are not the same as the platforms that make up our home, but the construction method is the same, the scale is much smaller though. Once the floor and the roof are built we will begin to cut into the tree at this level. Tangoral has marked the spots that will do the least warm to the grandfather tree. Once we cut through the tree, construction will then shift to the inside of the tree.”

   “The construction method on the inside of the tree will be a little different than building on the outside of the tree,” Tangoral said. “It is rare to be able to build in a tree such as this. This is the dream of every builder among our people. There is a certain amount of danger in building in the soft insides of a grandfather tree, unlike building outside.”

   “There is a fair amount of danger this high up as well, so everybody be careful,” Zothor said.

   They broke up into groups most of the brothers going with the women to gather the materials needed for construction. Zothor and Sokegal stayed behind to set the branches in place as the brothers brought them back. Tangalen joined them before the first branch was brought back. Cotayoak was overjoyed to see him. Tangalen was the only hard-shell that did not need to be trained first. Building will go much faster now, Cotayoak thought. Building did indeed go quickly. Food was brought up to the workers at midday by a couple of sisters who stayed to help gather materials for the floor. The afternoon saw both more brothers and sisters coming up to help. Zothor wondered if anybody was watching the herds. He thought he saw almost everybody from the dwelling up here at one time or another. Even a couple of green brothers came up to take a look before they left with Ommaro. By the end of the day the floor and the roof were ready to be poured. Shelasaw was too tired to cook anything, but that was ok she thought as she started down. Hot food would be waiting on a lot of very tired workers down below.

   Sokegal had enjoyed himself greatly. It had been a long time since he had worked this hard, it felt good. Zothor worked just as hard as the craft master did, but right now he was too tired to care about anything but sleep. The only thing that kept him going was watching Tangalen who didn’t seem as tired as the rest of them. Tangalen was tired, but not as tried as he was when he worked on the tree dwellers’ other hive. Tangoral worked near Ashorah as often as possible just to watch her smile at him when she looked up and caught him watching her. Cotayoak had never had so much help of this kind. He was exhausted more from trying to explain what he wanted done to his new helpers. It will go better tomorrow, he thought.

   

   The second day of construction went better than the first even though Cotayoak, Sheylmasa, Tangoral, and the women did most of the work. The Brachyura were not light or nimble enough to pour the floor. Instead they built other platforms and helped handled the vine that sprayed the tree sap over the floor. A hole was bored into the tree and one end of the vine that was actually an air root from the tree was plugged into the hole in such a way as to cause the vine to pump sap out of the other end at a fairly high rate of flow. First a light spray was laid down to fix the leaves in place before the heavier coats were applied. Construction of the other platforms went fast enough that they were able to pour the floors just past midday. The roof would wait until the next day, but would be poured similar to the floors. Because they would not be going any higher the roof would only need a light spraying to seal the leaves together.

   

   Tangoral was tired from working all day, but the cold wind blowing through the opening that was his window kept him awake. It was always cold on the ground, and most of the time the warm sleeping sands was enough to keep him warm, but not tonight. Tangoral took a quick measurement of his window and headed for the craft hall. It was late and Tangoral had the craft hall almost to himself. A couple of craftsmen were working late on special projects. One was trying to bend a piece of wood into a curved shape and the other looked to be doing some kind of repair to something he couldn’t see. The lab for testing the properties of tree sap was set up in the back of the hall near the part of the tree that was one of the walls of the craft hall. Tangoral waved a greeting as he entered and the craftsmen returned the greeting in kind.

   What Tangoral had in mind had never been tried before as a window and did not have any practical applications except to make plates. This would just be a big plate to stick in the hole in the wall that was his window. All the windows and doors in the Brachyura dwellings were just holes in the wall. Glass was unknown, sand had other uses. Tangoral drew off a little sap from the tree and poured it in a bed of wet sand he had made. Quickly before the puddle of sap hardened, he trimmed the edges to the size he needed to fill the empty space in his window. Now, he only had to wait for it to dry.

   Yorye was trying to bend a rather large piece of wood. This meant that you would slowly over time bend a green piece of wood into the desired shape and then let it dry. This evening he was trying to insert a large stick between the rope that was tied to both ends of the wood and the middle of the wood he was bending. He almost had it when he lost control of the stick. The stick shot off toward the back of the craft hall at a high rate of speed.

Tangoral had just lifted his window from the sand and was looking it over when a rather large stick struck the sap panel with enough force to knock the panel from his hands and into his chest and face. The force of the impact sent him flying back against tree. His head hit the tree hard and knocked him senseless.

   Tangoral was trying to remember the sequence of events when he returned to the land of the living. He had been hit by the sap panel and then everything went black when he hit the tree that was the craft hall’s back wall. When he opened his eyes Ishihari was standing over him wiping the blood from his face with a cloth. Trying to get his eyes to focus was a little hard. It seemed like the whole dwelling was standing over him. Yorye kept saying he was so sorry to somebody. Osshreea kept asking Ishihari if he would be all right. “Stay still,” Ishihari said when she saw him open his eyes.

   “Everybody stand back and give the boy some breathing room,” the craft master’s voice boomed.

   “What happened?” Tangoral asked.

   “Yorye lost control of one of the sticks he was using to bend a piece of wood with. That’s why that kind of work is done at night,” Mowlan replied. He was the other craftsman in the hall. “If you had not been holding that sap panel you were holding when the stick hit you you’d be dead right now.”

   “The panel, where is it?” Tangoral tried to sit up but his sight went fuzzy and his head began to pound.

   “I said, stay still,” Ishihari said in her mother knows best voice.

   “It’s up on the table,” Mowlan replied to Tangoral’s question. “I’m surprised it didn’t break.”

   “It didn’t break?” Tangoral tried to get up again. Things started to go black again before Ishihari pushed him back down to the floor.

   “If you try and get up again I’m going to have someone spit-sand you to the floor,” she said.

   The craft master reached over to the table and picked up the sap panel. He held it out so Tangoral could see it. “What’s it for?” he asked.

   “For my window. The wind was really cold tonight and kept blowing in my room,” Tangoral replied while he examined the panel Sokegal was holding. “Good, I see that most of the wet sand did not stick to the sap. I can’t even tell where it was hit by the stick. You can wash the rest of the sand off with boiling hot water and polish it at the same time. I need to get a brother to stick it in my window though.”

   “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” Sokegal said. He turned and handed the panel to one of his craftsmen giving instructions at the same time.

   Yorye pushed his way through the crowd. “Tangoral, I’m so sorry. I could have killed you. Are you all right?” he asked.

   “I’ll be fine. I just won’t be jumping up and down right away,” Tangoral replied. “Yorye, the next time you want to bend wood soak it in hot water first. The longer you soak it the more pliable it will become.”

   “Fresh cut or dried wood?” Sokegal asked.

   “Either, soak the dried wood longer though.”

   “I can’t believe you two. You’re carrying on like nothing has happened,” Ishihari said. “Where is Zothor with the medical technicians?” She was worried about her son.

   Tangoral knew this was not too serious of a head injury, but still, care must be taken. “Don’t worry Mother, I’ll be fine, but I need to be kept awake the rest of the night to be sure,” he said. “The red leaf plant you use in your salads, make a broth with it and bring me some later. It will relieve some of the pain and reduce the swelling.”

   Zothor arrived with a medic technician and all of the tree dwellers that were staying at the dwelling at the time. Ashorah was the first to reach Tangoral. She either leaped over or on the hard-shells that blocked her way. The other tree dwellers followed Zothor as the brothers quickly parted to let him through. The tears Ashorah’s eyes said all that she could not. A giant claw went around her. “He will be fine,” Ishihari assured her.

   “I didn’t think that our medical technicians could do much for Tangoral,” Zothor said as he arrived. “I stopped to get a tree dweller to come with me or I’d have been here sooner.” The medic technician stood there with his cart looking helpless and lost but watched carefully what the tree dweller was doing that was examining Tangoral.

   “All this fuss over a bump on your head?” Shelasaw asked after she had looked him over real good.

   “Yeah, I feel real stupid right now,” Tangoral replied.

   “The stick that hit him, hit him while he was standing over by that table,” Ishihari said pointing at the table. There were two hard-shells standing between the table and where Tangoral was laying against the tree. “This is where he landed. He has not yet been moved,” she continued.

   “Saved by an over sized plate,” Tangoral said.

   “He is lucky to be alive. He starts to pass out again every time he tries to sit up,” Ishihari said.

   “There is not much we can do for him,” Shelasaw said. “He is our healer. I, we, only know a little of the healing arts. There is not much we can do for him. He is awake and can tell you more than I, but I have seen worse than this and they lived. I think he will live too.”

   “He did this just to get out of working for a couple of days,” Sheylmasa said. “Ashorah, stay and help the hard-shells with Tangoral.” Ishihari looked at Sheylmasa. Sheylmasa caught her glance out of the corner of his eye. “She won’t do much work until she knows he’s better, and it’s a good match. She could not do better than Tangoral,” Sheylmasa whispered to Ishihari as he left with the other tree dwellers having assured themselves that Tangoral was ok. Ashorah’s father approved of the match, as did she. So much for custom, Ishihari thought as she watched Sheylmasa leave with the others.

   “Alright, let’s get him up on the cart,” Zothor said. “On three, one, two, three.” Sokegal, Zothor, Ishihari, and Mowlan gently lifted Tangoral up onto the cart. “Everyone can go home now. Our brother will be fine after a few days’ rest,” the dwelling clan leader said to the many brothers and sisters that had shown up at the craft hall when they heard what happened to Tangoral.

   

   The medical center was warm even if it did lack fresh air. By morning Tangoral could sit up, but standing up was out of the question. He declared himself fit enough to go rest in his room. As he did look improved, Ishihari agreed to the transfer and he was carted back to his room. Ishihari had stayed with him throughout the night even though Ashorah had fallen asleep next to him. They talked of change. Ishihari spoke of her other three children not at the dwelling. Tangoral spoke of bold dreams and told Ishihari some of the strange things he had seen. He talked about exotic places deep in the swamp. He would have gone on but Ashorah woke up. That’s when he declared himself fit enough to go home.

   The sap panel was polished and installed in the window by the time Tangoral returned to his room. The panel was polished beyond anything that he ever saw before in the plates that the People made. He expected to see light through it, but to be able to see through it came as a delightful surprise. Shelasaw sent down some pillows and a sleeping cover the women had made just for him. Now he would stay warm on all sides at night. His first visitor was Cantor.

   “You ok, what happen?” he asked in his normal youthful excitement mode that remind Tangoral of himself a few cycles of the sun ago.

   “I’m fine. I got hit by something and thrown a couple of paces across the craft hall into the tree,” Tangoral replied.

   “It hurts doesn’t it?”

   “It does,” Tangoral laugh. If any one would know what it was like to be slammed against a tree it would be Cantor.

   “Can you make me one of those things for my window?

   “I can make the plate easy enough, but I don’t know how to polish it that clear. I’ve never seen tree sap that clear.”

   “This is tree sap? It’s so smooth,” Ashorah said tapping on the panel. “How do you do that?” she asked Cantor.

   “With sanding blocks,” he replied.

   “What are sanding blocks?” Tangoral asked.

   “Blocks of spit-sand. Depending on how smooth you want something depends on how fine the sand is.” Cantor ran his hand over the panel. “You’d need four 0 small sand (about 0000 grit) to do something like that,” Cantor said. “Very special sand used mostly by the dwelling craftsmen, kept only in the craft hall. Only two sizes smaller. It’s kind of like gold to the craftsmen but costs more.”

   Ishihari came to check on Tangoral after talking with the medical technician before he left. She was amazed when she saw the window. “This is beautiful,” she said. “It’s so clear. It distorts vision a little but not much.”

   “The first impact test was very successful too,” Sokegal said from the door. “May I come in my son?”

   “For a short time,” Ishihari said.

   “Tangoral, is that what you had in mind?” the craft master asked.

   “Better than what I had in mind,” Tangoral replied.

   “I had Doesen do some more impact studies. Early results have about 10 hundredths of half-length of tree sap withstanding light gunfire. The final results won’t be in until this evening. Stress tests will be done by this evening as well.”

   “Stop by this evening, I’d be interested in the results, but you will need to do more testing to get true results.”

   “Why?” Sokegal asked.

   “Tree sap hardens over time. In a seven-day the sap will be twice as hard,” Tangoral replied.

   “I should have more panels made up to test over time then. This may change the way we build our dwellings.”

   “How?” Ishihari asked the craft master.

   “The sap panel in Tangoral’s window is stronger than the wall of spit-sand that holds it in place,” Sokegal replied. “Imagine windows as big as a door that could fit two brothers side by side or whole walls made of tree sap. A lot of things we make out of metal could be made out of tree sap much more quickly.”

   “What can we make out of tree sap?” Zothor asked as he entered the room.

   “That’s it, everybody out,” Ishihari commanded. “My son has not been to sleep for more than a day. Even now, Tangoral told me that he must be waken every few units of time throughout the rest of the day. Tangoral needs rest so everybody out.” Ishihari chased everybody out except Ashorah. “Make sure they stay out Ashorah,” she said.

   “How come she gets to stay?” Cantor asked.

   “How come you are not in your room getting ready for school?” Cantor disappeared; he was already grounded for three seven-days. He didn’t need to try for four. “The rest of you, don’t you have jobs or something else you should be doing,” Ishihari said to Zothor and Sokegal.

   “Come Zothor, I can tell when we’re not wanted,” Sokegal said. “We have another new invention for you to look at.” Sokegal led Zothor back down the hall. New inventions came now almost at a daily rate. Zothor spent a lot of his time in the craft hall as of late.

   Ishihari beckoned Ashorah over to her. “Take his mind off work so he can get some rest would you?” she asked.

   “Don’t worry, he won’t be thinking about work,” Ashorah said smiling.

   The things you could do with the sap panels filled Tangoral’s mind, walls and windows, and then Ashorah started the give him a massage. He forgot about everything but her touch. He sank deeper into the touch of her hands until he fell asleep in her arms.

   

   Zothor looked out the new windows in his office. He had three large round windows put in his office. They replaced six small windows and went from the floor to the ceiling. It was hard to believe that these windows could withstand heavy canon fire for a short time and be as thin as they were. He expected to replace a lot of metal items with tree sap replacements. Tangoral’s window had been crudely cast. The windows the craft hall put out now lacked the small distortions that Tangoral’s first window had. Sokegal and Tangoral developed something they called injection molding. With it they could make almost anything including the windows he now looked out, although the windows were an extrusion rather than a casting. All the new inventions were bringing the blue clan leadership to his dwelling. He worried about how they would accept the fact that all the new inventions that came from his dwelling as of late came from the mind of a tree dweller.

   Kobeta returned to have Tangoral remove his cast. His legs healed well with only a trace line where the cracks were. Zothor talked with Kobeta about how the brotherhood would react to having tree dwellers as friends instead of enemies. He did not think that the brotherhood was ready yet, but his dwelling had softened a little towards them because of Kobeta. Kobeta noted many changes in Zothor’s dwelling. The biggest was a shift in the language. The language was becoming a hybrid of tree dweller and Brachyura languages. The largest class attended by adults was the class in tree dweller language. More than half the dwelling spoke their language. Most were craftsmen of course. Kobeta was most impressed with the success of the project as a whole. He spent some time studying the tree dweller’s language and talking with Tangoral before he left.

   Tangoral spent a full seven-day recovering from his injury. He sent for Sorgarlac, leader of the tree dwellers in the Great Swamp, to show him impact tests on the sap panels. Then they went off to inspect the progress of the construction. It was of some concern to Zothor that seven tree dwellers could show up at his front door without warning. He would speak with the soldiers about how to get a little warning. All the gifts given when the tree dwellers left were building tools at Tangoral’s request and had to be custom made. The tree dwellers in return brought something called ‘cloth’ with them as a gift to the dwelling. He wasn’t sure what he’d do with it, but he was sure he could find something to do with it. Zothor wondered how he would tithe on all these new increases in the wealth of his dwelling. He sometimes felt overwhelmed by all the changes brought about by one person. The best he could do was thank God for showing his dwelling such kindness.

   “Grizzon!” he yelled.

   “Yes, Clan Leader,” Grizzon replied entering Zothor’s office.

   “Is everything ready for the leaderships’ visit?”

   “Yes, everything is in readiness. Ishihari even plans to use the cloth that the tree dwellers brought as table covers. We’re installing large windows in all the guestrooms and common areas where the leadership might go. Displays of all our new inventions and product improvements have been set up. Tangoral, Sheylmasa, and Geosamona even went out with some hunters to get a long neck.”

   “Then we’re ready,” Zothor said.

   “As ready as we’ll ever be,” Grizzon replied.

   

   Tangoral, Sheylmasa, and Geosamona had agreed to take the hard-shells hunting for long necks. Tragal, Doesen, Candean, and ten other brothers were what comprised the rest of the hunting party. The three soldiers were Tangoral’s assigned bodyguard, by their request. No light guns in this hunting party. Soldier always carried double heavy gun arrangements when on duty. For the rest it was a matter of personal preferences.

   Tangoral was there to test his new stick thrower, an idea born out of his accident. The young healer was not unprepared for the unexpected. He always kept his medicine bag close by. The tips of the sticks were made of what Sokegal called a composite. Metal and sap working together, razor blades embedded in sap to which Tangoral had added a poison that would stop a long neck in a heartbeat. Staying alive for that one heart beat was the tricky part. The poison would cook out of course. All the tools, like the sticks’ tips, were composite tools that Tangoral sent back with Sorgarlac and the others, another test of new equipment.

   Right now though they had a problem, three long necks were coming their way and would come upon the hunting party in a little while. They had the scent of the hunting party but weren’t overly hungry. Sheylmasa and Geosamona would stay above while Tangoral went down with the hard-shells.

   “What’s the word?” Doesen asked when Tangoral returned.

   “Three long necks will come on us any time part now,” Tangoral replied. Even as he spoke the words a long neck suddenly appeared in front of them. Tangoral did not wait to think he reached in his medicine bag and pulled out a leaf ball. He threw it at the long neck’s head. There was a loud pop when it impacted the creatures head and a small flash of light followed by a hundred more little bright flashes of light. The long neck paused for just a moment, blinded by the lights. A moment was all that was needed. Six heavy guns spoke and the long neck no longer had a head. A time part later the two other long necks appeared. A heart beat can sometimes be a long time to wait. The other brothers fired their guns, the results of which resulted in no solid hits on the long necks’ heads. Tangoral shot couple of sticks into each of the long necks with his stick thrower.

   Mowlan thought it would be fun to go hunting with the tree dwellers. It wasn’t fun now. He had just been bitten by a dying long neck. He wondered if the leadership would appreciate his sacrifice. He had heard that being bit by a long neck was not a bad way to die. He felt like he was floating. He could see the blood coming from himself, but he didn’t seem to mind any more.

   “Tangoral, Mowlan was bitten by a long neck,” Sheylmasa yell down from his place in the trees. Sheylmasa had worked with the craftsman many times. He was one of the few hard-shells he could recognize. Sheylmasa had a good view of what happened and he had come to like these hard-shells.

   Mowlan felt a little burning in the area of the bite but he still felt really good so he didn’t care. Tangoral was suddenly there feeding him sweets, but they tasted really bad. It was really nice thing to do for him, Mowlan thought. Everyone should have something to eat before they die. He ate what Tangoral was giving him just to be nice. The things Tangoral would stuff in his mouth from time to time were really nauseating. Now Tangoral was putting mud on the bite. The warm spot where he was bit turned into a raging fire and suddenly he was very sick. That was the last thing he remembered until he woke up in the medical center.

   

   Now that was a first, someone living after being bit by a long neck. Maybe this wasn’t a bad thing. If having Mowlan being bitten by a long neck, and living, was the worst that would happen during the leaderships’ visit, Zothor would count himself lucky. Here was just one of the little benefits of having a relationship with your local tree dwellers he would tell them, a cure for the poison in the saliva of the long necks. Three large long necks were a bit odd but Tangoral said that it was mating season for the long necks and all three of them were well fed. Three long necks less to hazard the herds.

   “Grizzon,” he bellowed. What did it mean by, ‘cooked by the tree dwellers,’ on the menu he was looking at.

   “Yes Clan Leader,” Grizzon said as he entered the office.

   “What this about the tree dwellers cooking?”

   “It was thought that we would do an evening of tree dweller food for a change.”

   “Has the food been taste tested?” Zothor asked. He didn’t want to serve anything that the leadership might not like.

   “Your mate wouldn’t say,” Grizzon replied.

   “That means the food is good, but how good will be the surprise she’s not telling. That means the food could boarder on being real good. If she won’t talk about it tonight, that means it’s one of those special to die for meals we don’t want to miss.” Ishihari would not even talk about food that evening. That was followed by the taste test just before bed of a new recipe she was testing. Little round bread balls filled with different wonderful flavors. Yes, the dinner will be one of the great meals of all time, Zothor thought as he went to sleep.

   

~~~

   

   This escort duty wasn’t as bad as Ommaro thought it would be. The green brothers were not that bad of companions. He was the group leader of eight blue brothers, eight well trained soldiers of the dwelling. They had killed only three stalkers the whole journey. All of them came as they were nearing the green brothers’ dwelling. He almost reached the dwelling before being detected by them and greeted. At the gather the food flowed freely, but had a feel of being rationed at the same time. Ommaro could feel the wrongness of this dwelling, but could not tell you what was wrong. The bright side was that he met a really beautiful medical technician as he wandered around the green brothers’ dwelling. He set the other soldiers on a two on watch before he went to sleep.

   The next day Ommaro responded with his soldiers to a raid on a nearby herd by stalkers. His soldiers accounted for six of the eight stalkers killed being first on the scene. The old dwelling clan leader commended the blue brothers for their quick actions. “Stalkers were becoming a constant problem,” he said. Ommaro knew he should have left right then but it would be rude not to wait until morning. Then there was the green sister he had asked to join him and his brothers for dinner. One thing bothered him, living around tree dwellers you start to look up more often. Once he thought he saw a tree dweller out of the corner of one of his eyes and that bothered him.

   LeTilleantum could not believe her luck. She was invited to eat with the blue brothers, all real soldiers. Then there was all the stuff about the tree dwellers. This is great, she thought. “Do you really have talking tree dwellers?” she asked across the dinner table.

   “Actually, there are more of the brothers that can speak their language than they ours, but to answer your question; we do have talking tree dwellers. Turns out they’ve been talking all along, we just didn’t understand what they were saying,” Ommaro replied.

   “What are they like? I heard that they are wild creatures like stalkers only smaller and easier to kill.”

   “They’re not like that at all,” one of the blue brothers jumped to the defense. “They’re clean and well behaved. They’re just like us, only soft. Tangoral the one that speaks our language is as smart as any of our craftsmen. We owe the tree dwellers a debt of honor that we cannot repay. To offer our friendship seemed like a big thing to do at the time. It turned out that it was a very small thing against a growing debt of honor.”

   “Tangoral is a leader among the tree dwellers. Zothor, our dwelling clan leader, adopted him for saving the life of his son. So far he has saved the lives of ten brothers. He comes up with a new invention about every other seven-day from which our dwelling will profit. When we get home we might not recognize it because of all the inventions we keep inventing. Tangoral is priceless and we value him above gold. Nothing but good has come from our association with the tree dwellers,” Ommaro added.

   “A wealthy dwelling like yours can afford to feed them for such an experiment, we cannot,” LeTilleantum said. “It would be hard for us to do the same thing.”

   “The inventions and product improvements have more than made up for what little food they eat. We have been more than repaid for what little we give them,” one of the other soldiers said. “They do not know what money is and so Zothor, our dwelling clan leader, and father of Tangoral has set up a trust for his adopted son. Tangoral already can afford not to work and in business he would rank next to Zothor and Tangalen, but he values none of that.”

   “Then what do they value?”

   There was a moment of silence as Ommaro formed his answer. “Tangoral values learning to do and doing. If we did not feed him he would feed himself, of that I have no doubt. It is better that he spends time just learning and working in the craft hall than hunting for his food. Tree dwellers value honor, they are the perfect guests, they love to work but they are very shy. They are more than simple creatures of the forest. They have strong families but have a rather fatalistic view of life. Go hunting and don’t come back, nobody comes looking for you. They figure you’re dead, why look for you? If you’re alive you’ll come back on your own if you want to. They’re perfect warriors, they fight for you when you’re alive and avenge you if you die by the wrong claws.”

   “How could tree dwellers hurt us or help us?” LeTilleantum asked.

   “It is one of the reasons why we are here,” Ommaro replied. “We are also checking on reports of an ecological imbalance in the forest region near your lands which may affect free trade.”

   “At last someone read my letters. I told the dwelling clan leader something was wrong with the rise in raids by stalkers. He just said these things happen from time to time. The raids would stop after a while he said, but they haven’t. I never dreamed my letter to the leadership would be answered so soon…” LeTilleantum went on and on until Ommaro stopped her.

   “I don’t know anything about your letter,” he said. “Our report comes to us from an unrelated source. There is cause for concern here. I am under orders to leave right now if certain conditions were met.”

   “Have we met those conditions?”

   “You have exceeded them. This dwelling is in grave danger of being attacked by stalkers,” Ommaro said.

   “I knew something like this would happen,” LeTilleantum said. “That little show you put on this morning was the first time in three seven-days we have not had someone hurt.”

   “You need self-defense drills starting right now. This whole dwelling should be on alert.”

   “You couldn’t get them to do it even if they’d believe you. I know, I’ve tried.”

   “Who is in charge of your medical center?” Ommaro asked.

   “I am,” LeTilleantum replied. Ommaro’s respect for her just went up.

   “Let us start there then,” Ommaro said. “The medical center will drill for a late night disaster starting right now.” Ommaro got up and checked his guns.

   “We can’t do that right now. I’d have to tell the dwelling clan leader and call in all my people.”

   “You mean that you can’t test your people without asking?”

   “Sure I can,” LeTilleantum said.

   “Then when you call your people in have them bring their children and their neighbors children with them to help create confusion for the test,” Ommaro said.

   “You’re serious.” LeTilleantum stood up. “You mean right now.”

   “Absolutely, you wanted to show me how good your medical center is in an emergency. I’d like to see. It’ll be fun.”

   “Really, I can’t, but I’d be glad to show you around our medical center if you like.”

   “I’ll take what I can get,” Ommaro said. Two floaters with one shot, I get to see the green brothers’ armory, and walk LeTilleantum home at the same time, he thought. “Two on again. Wake me for the last watch,” he said to the other blue brothers. “I’ll be back shortly.”

   

   Ommaro kept going over what she had said about the rise in stalker attacks in his mind. “You can’t tell what color we are in the dark,” LeTilleantum said just before she turned out the light. That of course brought an end to whatever Ommaro was thinking. What followed was pure heaven, he thought. Ommaro was late getting back and then he had trouble sleeping. Between the euphoria of being with LeTilleantum and the strange noises he kept hearing he was lucky he got any sleep at all.

   Ommaro woke up before the change in the watch with a feeling of wrongness. The strange noises kept him up all night but stopped as morning neared. Even as the morning crept forward a feeling of danger filled the hearts of all the blue brothers. Guns were loaded and ammo packs opened. Ommaro stopped off at the medical center. Nine fully armed blue brothers entered the green brothers’ armory. The guard was not alarmed until Ommaro woke him up. Ommaro woke up LeTilleantum next. “Wake up all your staff and get them in here now. Have them bring their families with them. Do it now and don’t ask questions,” he told her. Something in his voice made her do what she was told. Two soldiers of the Blue Brotherhood went with her. She had wakened most of her staff when the guns of her guards began to spit death. Two stalkers lay dead in the hallway and then all hell broke lose.

   Sporadic gunfire was mixed with the screams of green brothers or sisters could be heard by the time LeTilleantum returned to the medical center with her staff and their families. Wounded and children began to pour into the medical center. Twice the blue soldiers pushed invading stalkers back. Only sixty three of the Green Brotherhood made it to the medical center, mostly wounded and children. Ommaro knew he could not hold this position. “LeTilleantum, we cannot hold out much longer. We do not have the firepower to get everyone to safety. I don’t want to leave you here.”

   “Sealing us in and you go for help is the only chance we have,” LeTilleantum said.

   LaCowso was the only soldier of the green soldiers to make it to the command post. “I will go out with you to make sure you will get away,” he said. “Your dwelling is the closest. I only hope others will seal themselves in safe places until you can bring help.”

   “You’d make a good mate for some green brother,” Ommaro said to LeTilleantum to let her know he was concerned.

   “I’d mate with anybody that can save me right now,” she replied.

   “In that case, I’ll be right back. Seal the hall,” Ommaro ordered. Blue brothers working from the outside and green brothers and sisters working from the inside sealed the hallway in a few time parts. Ommaro and his soldiers fought their way through the dwelling. Bodies of dead and dying green brothers and sisters were everywhere. Blood carpeted the floor of the dwelling. Not even being well trained soldiers could prepare them for the death and carnage they saw. Occasionally a gun shot could be heard over the screams. Ommaro thought, this is what war must look like.

   Cold eyes looked down at a small group of blue hard-shells. The plan didn’t call for anyone to escape but they wouldn’t get far, he thought. He followed the blue hard-shells. They were not the poorly trained green hard-shells. The green hard-shell that was with the blues stopped in a large clearing. The blues ones kept going. The green one was drawing the stalkers to him giving the blues ones time to escape. This was not part of the plan but given their actions the other day it was not unexpected. The blue hard-shells helped rather than hurt the plan when they drove off the stalkers. The blues were an unexpected element he didn’t need, it was best to let them go.

   A brave act, Ommaro thought as they left LaCowso in the clearing. Retreating to the sound of steady gunfire the blue brothers vowed to return to rescue the green brothers or avenge them. Ommaro vowed to rescue LeTilleantum for a different reward. Ommaro fell back by squads. Each squad set positions and then fell back beyond the other squad and reset, a mad game of leapfrog against certain death. Ommaro did not stop at night. In the dark they climbed one of the trees and continued their escape. It was an unexpected move that allowed the blue brothers to escape other hunters undetected.

   

~~~

   

   Everything was cleaned and polished twice for the coming of the leadership of the Blue Brotherhood. Large windows of crystal clear tree sap were made and installed as fast as the craft hall could turn them out. The windows reduced the heat loss so dramatically vents had to be installed to control the temperature. The windows were a big hit. The gather hall had six of the largest windows that could be made and gave it the feeling of being outdoors. Six fire places were replaced with just one and vents were added in case it got too hot inside the gather hall. All the clay plates and drinking cups were replaced with clear sap ones. A display of all the new inventions and product improvements made over the last thirty seven-days or so was set up. Stress tests were set up to show the great forces that tree sap could endure. One secret Zothor would keep from the leadership was the tree sap’s ability to withstand gunfire. It gave him a state of the art weapon for his soldiers that no one else would have.

   Zothor went over in his mind the events of the coming days. Soldiers would do drills, the sisters would cook great food, they would look at some of the herds, and he would convince the leadership that having tree dwellers as friends was a good thing. Word had come that the leadership was coming and the whole clan went out to greet the leadership of their clan. Tangoral was the only tree dweller among them being a brother of the clan. “Greetings brothers, we are honored by your visit to our humble dwelling,” Zothor said as he greeted the leadership of the Blue Brotherhood.

   “Thank you for your warm greeting brother,” Adreeum councilor of the twelve that governed the blue clan said. “For our own reasons we wish that our guards be lodged here, unless that would be a problem for you?”

   “Not at all, we can adjust. Meals may sometimes be late arriving for some special meals must be made at the dwelling.”

   “We can adjust if the food is good,” Rownan said.

   “Where are my manners,” Adreeum said. “May I present Brother Rownan, new councilor on the blue council. Rownan this is Zothor, dwelling clan leader and an old friend of mine.”

   “Greetings, we have heard many good things about this dwelling,” Rownan said.

   “Thank you, it’s always good to be well thought of,” Zothor replied.

   “I see that at least one interesting rumor is true,” Adreeum said. “You have domesticated a tree dweller.”

   “Brother Adreeum the question of who is domesticating who has yet to be answered,” Zothor said. “Come meet Tangoral, he has saved the life of my youngest son twice now and I have adopted him as honor demands. He speaks and understands our language quite well.”

   “It can talk?” Adreeum couldn’t believe what he had heard about this tree dweller was true. How could a tree dweller learn to talk, and to adopt him?

   “Adreeum, is that you?” a voice asked.

   “Tangalen, is that your voice I hear?”

   “Yes it is,” Tangalen said as he pushed his way to the front.

   “We wondered where you went after you left the council. Somehow, I am not surprised to find you here,” Adreeum said.

   “It’s worse than you think, I am their patriarch.”

   “Which order, not New Age?”

   “No, all here follow the old ways,” Tangalen replied.

   “Surprising, considering the rumors and reports coming from here,” Adreeum said.

   “What rumors?” Zothor asked.

   “What reports?” Tangalen asked.

   “Nothing bad my friends. Rumors of a strange experiment involving tree dwellers, and product reports, new licenses applied for, dwelling seven-day reports, and new medical technologies never before thought of all coming from here. The council wondered about such a marked increase in productivity coming from one of our oldest and finest dwellings. So we were sent to observe what changes you’ve made to get such an increase,” Adreeum said. “I now suspect it is tied to the strange experiment with the tree dwellers I heard rumors of.”

   “The rumors are true,” Zothor said. “We are engaged in a bold experiment with the tree dwellers and the success of that project will be measured in new products and new technologies we will and have created for the benefit of the Blue Brotherhood.”

   Rownan found himself left out of the conversation so he wandered in the direction of the tree dweller until he stood in front of Tangoral. “Greetings, I am Brother Rownan,” he said.

   “Greetings, I am Tangoral.”

   “Interesting, did you know that your name is on a lot of reports as the inventor of a lot of new products and product improvements?”

   “I have a beginning of that knowledge. If there are reports, then I would think that my name is on them. I am just learning about writing,” Tangoral replied.

   “What else have you learned?” Rownan asked.

   “Nothing much useful, but all that I have learned has been very interesting.”

   “I was once asked, after several cycles in schools for higher learning, a similar question.”

   “What was your answer?” Tangoral asked smiling.

   “The same as yours,” Rownan laughed. Being able to talk to a tree dweller close up changed a lot in Rownan’s mind. “How did you come to be among the brothers?”

   “Fate, I came to study you and saved a few lives in the process. That opened the door to greater learning, but the greatest thing we are learning is that hard-shells and tree dwellers can live together in friendship and peace.”

   “And you think that is a good thing?”

   “Anytime two enemies become friends it is a good thing,” Tangoral replied.

   “What a New Age thing to say,” Rownan said.

   “What do you mean by New Age?”

   “It’s an updated religion rising out of the ashes of the old order. They seek to bend the way of God to serve their updated needs. It’s an excuse to disobey God and stray from his path,” Tangalen said as he, Zothor, and Adreeum walked up on them.

   “New age is hardly that,” Rownan said. “It is a modern understanding of the prophets’ writings updated to fit the times.”

   “The prophets’ writings stand for themselves. They don’t need to be updated but can only truly be understood in their original context,” Tangalen snapped back.

   “Tangalen, this is Brother Rownan he embraces one of the New Age movements,” Adreeum introduced Tangalen to Rownan to stop further debate. “Tangalen, is the defender of the faith here.”

   “I welcome the challenge,” Rownan said.

   “Adreeum, this is my adopted son Tangoral. Tangoral, this is Brother Adreeum of the council for the Blue Brotherhood,” Zothor said to further change the subject.

   “Greetings Brother Adreeum, I hope your stay will be a pleasant one,” Tangoral said.

   “It will certainly be an interesting stay,” Adreeum said somewhat cryptically.

   “I shall see to it, starting with the way you build these drafty old dwellings,” Tangoral said.

   “What’s wrong with the way we build?” Adreeum asked.

   “Come and see one of our newest inventions that will change the way we build our dwellings,” Zothor said.

   “The ones not in the reports yet,” Tangalen said.

   “Lead on Clan Leader. We will follow with my mate.”

   “We could house your guard. They do not need to stay out here,” Zothor said.

   “The council thinks it would be best to leave the guards here so not to frighten the tree dwellers if the rumors of a successful experiment proved true,” Adreeum said.

   “At least bring them closer to the dwelling so your host’s burden will be lighter,” Tangoral suggested. “We are not easily frightened.”

   “That is a reasonable request. Rownan have the guards follow us and make camp at the first sight of the dwelling,” Adreeum said. “Are you sure the tree dweller has not heard of the New Age movement.”

   “He just found out that there are other hard-shells that are not blue a few days ago. No, he hasn’t had the time to hear about New Age anything and I’d like to keep it that way,” Tangalen said raising his voice at the end in hopes that Rownan heard.

   “We are here as observers only. I am not here to convert anyone, but if someone asks I cannot remain silent. The tree dweller does sound a bit like a New Age movement adherent though,” Rownan said. “Are all tree dwellers like this one?”

   “Are all the Brachyura like you?” Tangoral asked Rownan in return.

   “No,” he replied. “We all have shells is about as close to being the same as we can get.”

   “It is the same with us as well, only we don’t have shells.”

   All the way back to the dwelling Rownan was a walking barrage of questions. Tangoral answered them all calmly. Even when the questions turned dark with regards to tree dweller raids Tangoral remained calm answering Rownan’s questions openly and frankly. Rownan was impressed with this tree dweller. The questions were his way of testing Tangoral. The questions were designed to inflame and enrage and the tree dweller had not risen to the bait. The questions did enrage Zothor though. He whispered to Rownan that the tree dwellers would be cooking a meal and they still needed someone or something for the pot. The veiled threat conveyed enough to bring to an end of Rownan’s questioning of Tangoral. It also told Rownan that Zothor was very protective of his adopted son.

   Adreeum walked with Tangalen on the way to the dwelling. He asked a few questions of his friend and one time council member. Mostly he listened to Rownan’s questioning of the tree dweller. He was amazed with the tree dweller as any of the brotherhood would have challenged Rownan long before he reached this stage in his questioning. Adreeum watched Zothor say something to Rownan and the questions abruptly halted. Zothor was protecting the interests of his adopted son or that of a very valuable asset. He wondered which it was, probably both, he thought. Adreeum was impressed with the tree dweller’s command of the language. He found it just as interesting that many of the brothers and sisters that spoke to the tree dweller spoke using the language of the tree dwellers or some kind of mix between to two languages. Adreeum was not disposed to like tree dwellers in general, but Tangalen had told him of all the lives he had saved including his own. That softened his heart towards this tree dweller. That the brothers and sisters of this dwelling had a high regard for this tree dweller was plainly evident.

   Adreeum and Rownan were speechless when they saw the dwelling. Huge windows were everywhere. At first they thought they were open to the outside. As they got closer they could see it was some kind of clear material that filled the large open spaces. This was a major departure from traditional construction. If this is the fruit of Zothor’s experiment with the tree dwellers maybe we should have reached a claw out to the tree dwellers in friendship a long time ago, Adreeum thought. Rownan thought much the same thing but wondered how strong the windows were. When Zothor answered their questions they found it hard to believe that the material in the windows was stronger than the spit-sand that held them in place. Of course, Zothor left out that the windows could withstand heavy canon fire much better than the spit-sand.

   

   Most of the meals sent out to the councilor’s guards were brought to them by both the sisters and some of the tree dwellers. Zothor did this to accustom other blue brothers to the idea that tree dwellers were not the dirty wild creatures they had been taught to believe. The meals cooked by the tree dwellers proved very successful. The deserts were the most popular by far. The sweet balls, as one guard called them, were to die for. The name stuck and ever after the sweet bread balls with filling were just called, ‘sweet balls.’ Not all the meals were brought out. Sometimes the meals had to be cooked in place. This evening the tree dwellers were roasting a portion of a long neck with vegetables for Councilor Adreeum’s guards. Shelasaw was in charge. Only a couple of sisters had come out to lend a claw. The smell tantalized the taste buds of the blue brothers and they could hardly wait for the long neck to be cooked. Others could also smell the food and were guided by it.

   The food was just set out when nine heavily armed blue brothers rushed into camp. For a minute everything was pandemonium as two dozen guards raced for their guns, but they were cut off by nine very tired but well trained soldiers. Several well placed shots by Ommaro brought a halt to the madness for which he did not have time to waste. Ommaro thought he was lost just before he smelled the food. “Who is in charge here?” he demanded.

   “Councilor Adreeum,” one of the guards said hoping it would have an effect on the brothers that had gotten the drop on them.

   “Where is he?” Ommaro’s tone was still just as hostile.

   “He’s visiting a dwelling…” Ommaro wasn’t even listening. He had just spotted some tree dwellers standing near the food.

   “Tangoral, where,” he demanded of the female tree dweller. Shelasaw pointed in the direction of the dwelling. “Thank you.” Just because he was tired was no reason to not at least be a little polite. A moment later nine soldiers disappeared into the night from which they came. Once Ommaro and his soldiers were gone the guards rushed for their guns. Snapping food up off the table they trailed off after the soldiers.

   “There goes a perfectly good meal gone to waste,” one of the sisters said.

   “Not at all,” Shelasaw said as she sat down at the table and began to eat the food before her.

   

   Ommaro entered the dinning hall and made straight for the table where Zothor was sitting. The four strange blue brothers and the sisters next to them must be the councilor and his party, he thought. Ommaro was still armed when he entered the dinning hall. It was not proper etiquette. It would take an act of war to bring a gun into the dinning hall during a formal dinner.

   Something terrible must have happened, Zothor thought as he watched Ommaro cross the room. Ommaro had returned much too soon also entered his mind. All eyes were watching as he crossed the room. Ommaro would have plowed right through anyone in his way if they had not jumped out of the way.

   “Clan Leader, forgive the intrusion, but I have been without sleep for many days now,” Ommaro said as he came to a halt. “The green brothers have been attacked by over a hundred stalkers. The attack came just before dawn six days ago. Many are dead and others are trapped. We sealed the medical center with sixty or more green brothers and sisters in it, mostly wounded and children. We must return in force to rescue any survivors. Food in the medical center is limited.” This was the worst possible news.

   Zothor rose from the table. “All soldiers will report to their emergency stations. Ishihari have food prepared for a force of a hundred brothers. Tragal make preparations to leave at dawn. I want all our soldiers with us. Select sixty other brothers to come with us. This will be a long very quick march, young brothers will be best. Tangoral, we will need an advanced scout. You are the best we could have.”

   “Tragal you will also need medical technicians,” Tangoral said as he stood up. “I will of course come with you. I will need to look around to determine the cause of the attack. I can listen to Ommaro’s report as we go. Right now, he looks like he’s asleep standing up.”

   “Ommaro, you and the others report to your quarters. We will wake you when it is time to go,” Zothor said.

   “You may include myself and our guards,” Rownan said.

   “Then they will need to be rearmed. Their guns are to light for stalkers,” Tangoral said.

   “I too would like to go with you, but I fear I am too old for such adventures,” Adreeum said. “I would just slow you down. My heart will be with you and I shall pray for your success and safe return.”

   “Thank you. This is a stage one alert. This is not a drill. Everyone to your stations,” Zothor said with firm resolve. This is where all our training pays off, he thought.

   The room became a mass of moving bodies as they scrambled for the doors. Tangoral sat back down to finish eating. Adreeum too remained with his mate Luceantihi as the room emptied. “You are willing to go with them and risk your life?” Adreeum asked.

   “There is not much risk with a hundred brothers going with me,” Tangoral replied between mouthfuls of food. “I would have gone alone though.”

   “Why?”

   “I need to understand what made the stalkers attack the dwelling. The green brothers set up the conditions that brought about this attack by not paying their tithes. Under the right conditions stalkers could be encouraged to attack the dwelling or it may just be a simple matter that they just got too hungry. I need to know which it was.”

   “Again, I ask why?” Adreeum said.

   “One is an act of nature. The other is an act of war. If we are ever to learn to live together in peace and friendship I need to know which it was,” Tangoral replied. Tangoral finished the food on his plate and left.

   “These tree dwellers are most curious creatures,” Luceantihi said after Tangoral left the dinning hall.

   “Yes, they are my dear, and that one is worth ten times his weight in gold.”

   “I can see he is well thought of here, but I wouldn’t think a tree dweller could be worth that much.”

   “Do not underestimate that tree dweller my dear. For the past half a cycle every new idea that has come from this dwelling started in his mind, even the windows you like so much. Tree dwellers are much smarter than we have believed and that one is very gifted,” Adreeum said.

   When the councilors’ guards reached the dwelling it was on full alert and looked like they were arming for war. They were upset with Ommaro and his soldiers but Rownan quickly explained the situation to them. They may have been a little put out that Rownan volunteered them to go on the rescue mission but they did not let it show. Preparations continued throughout the night. Dawn saw over a hundred and twenty-five well armed blue brothers march away from the dwelling at a rapid pace.

   

~~~

   

   LaCowso had evaded stalkers for three days after the blue brothers went for help. He tried to return to the dwelling twice. Each time he had to run for his life with stalkers chasing him but they always quit the chase just before nightfall. He was almost out of ammo and didn’t dare try to return to the dwelling again. Instead he headed for the blue brothers’ dwelling. High above him others had watched the cat and mouse game for days with some amusement. They followed waiting for a time when they could kill this hard-shell without risking their own lives. They had killed some others that tried to escape but they weren’t armed as this one was. Their attention was diverted from their prey when they saw an army of blue hard-shells coming towards the green hard-shell. They must warn the others they thought as they turned and raced back to the hard-shell home.

   

   Tangoral moved lazily through the trees. He was not too far ahead of the army of blue brothers. The one thing of interest in Ommaro’s report was that he may have seen one of the People of the Trees. May have, but he wasn’t sure. It could have been a trick of light or he could have really caught a glimpse of one of the People. He would know soon enough. Something was moving on the ground not far from him. Whatever it was it was moving in a direction that would intersect with the blue brothers. Tangoral dropped down to get a better look.

   LaCowso saw the tree dweller sitting on one of the roots of the great trees. The tree dweller didn’t move as he got closer. When he was almost to the tree the tree dweller jumped down in front of him. “Greetings,” Tangoral said. “You are one of the green brothers that stayed at our dwelling not long ago, aren’t you?”

   Relief filled LaCowso. “Yes, I am,” he said. “Are you the tree dweller called Tangoral?”

   “Yes, I am Tangoral.”

   “Then I’m near the blue brothers’ dwelling.”

   “No, actually you’re many days from there and if you keep going in the direction you are going you will miss the dwelling, but not by much.”

   “Can you guide me then?” LaCowso asked.

   “There is no need,” Tangoral replied. “Not far behind me more than a hundred brothers are coming this way at a rapid pace.”

   “Then Ommaro reach his dwelling, and persuaded the dwelling clan leader to come to our rescue.”

   “Ommaro ran for five days and nights without sleep to reach our dwelling. Zothor did not need to be persuaded to do what is right. Ommaro arrived at dinner time and we left the dwelling before the sun rose on the next day.”

   “I am only few days out from our dwelling. There is still time to save those in the medical center before their food runs out,” LaCowso said.

   “Then we are a day away or less. I have led the brothers in a straight line course and we are traveling at more than twice your speed at present,” Tangoral said. “I must now increase my speed so that I can scout the dwelling and return before nightfall. You will wait here for the brothers. Tell Zothor to stop at sunset this night. It will be best if we are well rested before we attack the stalkers in the morning. Tell him not to get too close to the dwelling too.” Tangoral turned and ran up the tree leaving LaCowso standing there. He did not have long to wait. The sight of more than a hundred blue brothers both inspired him and filled him with fear. This was the first army to be seen in almost two thousand cycles of peace among the brotherhood and it was awe inspiring, but it was the fact that it was a well trained army that filled LaCowso with fear. This is a clan that kept the old ways, he thought as he stepped out to greet them.

   

   Early morning just before dawn a hundred well camouflaged blue brothers surrounded the green brothers’ dwelling. It was decided that Councilor Rownan and his guards would be held in reserve to escort the medical technicians. This was mostly to keep the poorly trained brothers that served as guards and escorts to the councilors from being hurt. They would wait until the stalkers began to emerge from the dwelling before attacking. At first light the stalkers began to come out of the dwelling. The first shots fired did not come from the blue brothers. The shots came from inside the dwelling. Not willing to wait when lives might hang in the balance Zothor ordered the attack.

   The first volley killed every stalker that had come out of the dwelling. With the first shots stalkers began to pour out of the dwelling. They were cut down almost as quickly as they emerged. Only a few stalkers made it past the blue brothers, but the stalkers that reached the brothers no longer had any interest in attacking them. Their only goal was in fleeing for their lives. When the stalkers would no longer come out of the dwelling Zothor gave the order to advance. Tangoral was with Zothor and he was accompanied by his standard bodyguards, Tragal, Doesen, and Candean as they entered the dwelling. Inside the dwelling fighting was heavy, but by midday the dwelling was cleared of stalkers. Some escaped but most were killed. Once inside of the dwelling the blue brothers saw all the death and destruction wrought by the stalkers they had no inclination to be merciful. The blood of the green brothers had dried on the floor and empty shells were everywhere. There were some bodies that were half eaten here and there throughout the whole dwelling. Tears filled Tangoral’s eyes when he saw the small empty shells of children in one room he entered. Why do the children have to pay for the mistakes of the adults, he asked himself. At last they reached the medical center; it was still sealed. Who was doing all the shooting earlier, Zothor wondered.

   “Ommaro, open it up quickly. The stalkers may have found another way in,” Zothor said. Ommaro and a couple of brothers went to work on the walled up entry to the medical center and in a few short moments they had the wall down. Ommaro was the first in followed by the others.

   “Praise God,” one of the green brothers said when he saw the blue brothers.

   “LeTilleantum,” Ommaro called out.

   “Ommaro,” she replied. “Thank God, you’re not a moment to soon. We were about out of food.”

   “Are you ok?” he asked. “We heard gunfire earlier.”

   “No, we’re fine.”

   Zothor entered the room with Tangoral. “Is everybody ok in here?” he asked.

   “They’re all ok Clan Leader,” Ommaro said. “This is LeTilleantum, Clan Leader. She is the head of the medical center here.”

   “Pleased to meet you, I wish it could be under better circumstances,” Zothor said. “It is best if you stay here for now. There may be a few stalkers left in the dwelling and there are dead everywhere. Give us time to make sure there are no more stalkers about and get some of the bodies out. It’s not pretty out there. It was a good thing that we did not have breakfast this morning.”

   “Thank you for your concern, but I’m a medical technician. I need to go out to check for survivors,” LeTilleantum said.

   “You don’t want to go out there,” Tangoral said. LeTilleantum had been watching the tree dweller ever since he entered the medical center with the others. She was a bit taken back when he spoke.

   “Tangoral is right, you don’t want to go out there,” Ommaro said.

   “We are searching the dwelling now for survivors. If there are any we will bring them here,” Zothor said. “Also, I expect to have some wounded which will also be brought here. The medical technicians I brought with me will give you a claw.”

   “Tragal, we need to get a count of all the weapons in this dwelling,” Tangoral said. “And check on the food stores too.”

   “The armory is a mess. There are weapons scattered everywhere,” Tragal said. “I would think the food stores are the same way.”

   “Stalkers have no need of guns, they can’t eat them. The armory should have been pretty much intact. The food storerooms, stalkers might have broken into, but they prefer meat and there was plenty of that,” Tangoral replied.

   “Anything else?”

   “Have Councilor Rownan bring up his guards and start the clean up. Let’s also sweep the forest for any escaping stalkers,” Zothor added. “We all have a lot of work ahead of us.”

   

   LaKayzin was impressed with the soldiers of the blue brothers. He sought to emulate them. He began to keep two heavy guns with plenty of ammo in his personal dwelling upon his return. The morning the stalkers attacked he had gotten up early. For what reason he had long forgotten, but he remembered the sound of gunfire that galvanized him into action. At first he thought about getting to the armory but he never got the chance. He was immediately thrust into a life and death struggle for his life and the lives of all those in his wing of the dwelling. He managed to seal a section off for a short time. This bought him the time he needed to do a better job of sealing the hallway farther back with the help of a few others. LaKayzin managed to save six families, but food was in short supply. A couple of days later stalkers came through the windows and he was forced to retreat again. This time he was able to take a couple of dead stalkers with him as food for the families under his protection. Once again, he was able to seal himself off from the stalkers with the help of the brothers and sisters with him but that was many days ago and the food was all gone now. The stalkers somehow managed to dig a hole in the wall and he was once again fighting for his life and the lives of those with him. LaKayzin wondered if it was day or night as he open fired on the stalkers. As suddenly as they had tried to come through the wall the stalkers vanished. He could hear the sound of steady gunfire in the silence of the moment.

   The sounds of the gunfire stopped. It didn’t seem to last very long. LaKayzin wonder if someone, trapped like him, had made good his escape or lost his life. Two eyes poked through the opening in the wall. “Anybody in here?” a voice asked.

   “Yes, I got six families in here with me,” LaKayzin said, the relief in his voice was very evident, an answer to a silent prayer.

   “I got some live ones here,” he heard the voice yell. Moments later the hole was enlarged and two blue brothers entered. He could hear the sisters crying tears of joy and relief. Somehow the visiting blue brothers had made good their escape and returned with help. LaKayzin dropped to the floor and folded his claws back over his shell and thanked God for his salvation. The others with him followed suit giving thanks to God for their rescue.

   The guns were still being counted; in fact, Zothor was having a tally made of everything in the dwelling. The body count was over a hundred and they were still finding bodies. Tangoral went out to inspect the outside of the dwelling. Eyes watched Tangoral from high above as he walked across the rooftop of the dwelling. Doesen and Candean followed him. Every now and again Tangoral would stoop down and look at something. “What are you looking for?” Doesen asked.

   “Blood” Tangoral replied.

   “Did you find any?” Candean asked.

   “No, but it’s had time to wash off.”

   “If the blood has washed off, why are we up here looking for it?” Doesen asked.

   “There are other signs as well,” Tangoral replied.

   “Like what?”

   “Hair caught on the tree bark, bits of flesh, anything that doesn’t belong up here.”

   “Did you find any of those things?” Candean asked.

   “I found more than that,” Tangoral replied. “I found that we are being watched. Don’t look up. In a moment I am going to run up this tree like I’m trying to get away from you. When I do, I want you to shoot at me like your trying to stop me.”

   “Why?” asked Candean.

   “So it looks like a prisoner is trying to escape to the one who is watching us now. I’d like to talk to this fellow without having to explain why I am with two hard-shells.”

   “You want us to follow you up the tree?” Doesen asked.

   “Only a little ways,” Tangoral replied. “Then go tell Zothor not to send anyone into the forest alone for now. Candean let me tell you I’m sorry in advance.”

   “For what?”

   “Jumping on you.” With that said Tangoral threw his stick thrower at Doesen and jumped on Candean. Tangoral ran up the tree in a zigzag pattern. Candean was crushed to the roof they were standing on. Once he regained his legs he and Doesen began to open fire on Tangoral. They tore up the tree all around Tangoral with their gunfire as they started up the tree after him.

   

   Tangoral sat on the tree limb panting. I needed to get out more, he thought as he gulped the air. Tangoral heard a noise behind him that made him jump up as if to run. “Relax,” a voice said. “They gave up the chase.”

   “Thank the Maker of All Things. I was beginning to think I’d never get away from them,” Tangoral said.

   A young male of the tree people stood before him. He had the full mane of adulthood. It was a sharp contrast to Tangoral whose mane had not yet filled in. “I couldn’t help but wonder child, how one of the People came to be among the hard-shells?” he asked.

   Very direct, thought Tangoral. “The blue hard-shells were trying to study us to find a way to stop our raids. I was the one lucky enough to fall into one of their traps,” he replied.

   “How long have they held you prisoner?”

   “Six, eight moons. It’s hard to tell when you’re on the ground and inside their home most of the time.”

   “I’m Kittanota, chief of a tribe in that direction two settings of the sun,” he said pointing.

   “I’m Tangoral I live in that direction in the Great Swamp.” Tangoral also pointed in the direction of his home. “I am almost a moon’s distance from my home. You must have a great healer to get the stalkers to attack a hard-shell dwelling.”

   “How do you know I caused this attack?” Kittanota asked.

   “Hard-shells are very powerful and stalkers avoid their home because they have learned to respect their weapons,” Tangoral replied. “So you must have a great healer to gather and cause this many stalkers to attack the hard-shells. I may be young, but I’m not stupid.”

   Kittanota laughed. “You’ve got good eyes,” he said. “And, we could use your knowledge of the hard-shells in our fight against them.”

   “You’re right in thinking that I know the hard-shells, but I know enough to know that we cannot fight them. A good healer might avenge a wrong done by them, but to fight them is madness.”

   “It’s not madness. You have no idea what they do to us. They kill our women and children, burn our homes and drive us from our lands. We must fight back before it is too late. Before there are no more of us left.”

   “They think we are wild dirty creatures that must steal for a living. We raid their herds of shunails and take the fruit of their labors because it is often easier than hunting. Then we wonder why they chase us from our lands, kill us, and burn our homes.”

   “I think you’ve lived with them too long. You’re young, you probably don’t know what it is like to be driven from your home and watched as your people were killed and your home burned as the red hard-shells did to me and my people,” Kittanota said. Tangoral’s words had cut him to the heart.

   “Twice,” Tangoral said simply.

   “What?”

   “Twice we have been driven from our home in my memory. The last time it was not for a noble reason of protecting what was theirs. It was a small band of hunters out for the thrill. They set our home on fire and then killed many of us as we tried to escape. My parents were among those that were killed. Their deaths were avenged by our healer. The shells of those hunters lie rotting in the forest along with the shells of those that came to look for them. You saw how quickly the blue hard-shells killed all the stalkers. The blue hard-shells are better trained than most. To have tried to fight them would have been a quick way to join our dead.”

   “We can fight them now. We have taken their weapons and can use them against our enemies.” Kittanota was beginning to see that this was no ordinary child. Probably because he had lived with the hard-shells for so long, he thought.

   “You may have a few of the hard-shells weapons, and yes, you can use them against the hard-shells. But, can you make the ammo for them or repair them if they break. The weapons you have are toys compared to some of the weapons the blue hard-shells have. The only thing you will do is anger the hard-shells. There are many more of them than there are of us,” Tangoral said.

   “We killed all the hard-shells here. It was not that hard. We can kill the rest the same way.”

   “There are six clans each have twelve homes located along the Great Swamp. Each home has more than two hundred hard-shells in it. I’m told that they have great big homes far from the dangers of the Great Swamp. One of their cities is bigger than a hundred of their homes. Each clan would have one of these cities, but in fact there are more cities than that. I have seen their drawings that show where they built these cities,” Tangoral said. “I used to think like you. I wanted to destroy them by turning their own weapons against them. After having lived with them I can see that our only hope for survival is to make some kind of peace with them, and by the way, you didn’t kill all the hard-shells here.”

   “I think you like these hard-shells,” Kittanota spat. He was beginning to not like this child at all.

   “I no longer look upon them with eyes filled with hatred, and yes, I do like some of them. I can speak their language so I can judge their hearts one at a time as I would of any of the People,” Tangoral replied calmly.

   “I can see you could be made to betray the People and you should be destroyed for the good of the People.” Kittanota was sure he hated this child as he reached for his knife.

   Tangoral reached out and hit Kittanota in the chest before he could draw his knife. Kittanota dropped like a dead branch falling from a tree. He was gasping for air and couldn’t move. “Tangoral are you alright?” voice behind Kittanota asked. Tangoral looked up and saw Doesen standing there with guns ready.

   “I’m fine. I thought I told you to stay at the dwelling and I’d be back shortly.”

   “Our orders were very clear. We were to stay with you at all times. I followed you up and Candean went to give Zothor your message. What are you going to do with him?” Doesen asked.

   Tangoral knelt down and removed all of Kittanota’s weapons. He ignored the question for the moment. “Kittanota, I am the healer of my people, do you see the blue hard-shell behind you?” he asked. Kittanota nodded between gasps. These blue hard-shells have taken a vow not to kill any of the people except in self-defense. That one is one of my bodyguards. He would have killed you to protect me. I know what you did here. I know how you did it. Now, I want the name of your healer or you will never leave this branch.”

   “Never,” he gasped. “She’s my wife (gasp). Kill me (gasp) I’ll never tell her name (gasp).” Tangoral could see the hate burning in his eyes as he tried to suck air into his lungs.

   “You hate me and you hate the hard-shells. If you do not tear this hate from your heart it will destroy you and your people with you. Already my people are on friendly terms with these hard-shells to our great benefit. We too have taken guns from the hard-shells to defend ourselves with, but I can get the ammo for them. It is freely given to me what you would kill and steal for. If I were to guess at the name of your healer I would think it was Saralashaw, She Who Sings to the Trees.” Tangoral had hoped to trick Kittanota into telling the name of his wife and healer by using the name of his sister.

   Surprise was written all over Kittanota’s face. “How do you know her name?” he cried.

   Now it was Tangoral’s turn to be surprised. “Your wife, your healer is Saralashaw?”

   “Yes, how do you know her name?” Kittanota was now afraid for his wife. Once a healer knows your name he can kill you or so it was believed among the People of the Trees.

   Tangoral wanted to drag Kittanota off right that moment and see his sister but he knew it would place him in a very dangerous tree. “Kittanota, I want you to take a message to my sister. Tell her that her brother would like very much to see her again. I will be here for a while and the hard-shells will not harm any of the people as long as they are not attacked.” This time it was Kittanota’s turn to be surprised again. “Will you tell her?”

   “I will tell her, I cannot promise that she will come,” he said feeling a little better. In fact he tried to stop his wife from going to see her brother. He ended up laying the floor of his home gasping for air again.

   Tangoral left Kittanota’s weapons on the branch in front of him. “Come on Doesen, let’s go check on the others while we’re up here.” Doesen handed Tangoral back his stick thrower. He turned and followed Tangoral toward the Great Swamp.

   

   A young female stalker had fallen into quicksand with her first and only child as she fled the blue brothers. The others of her kind didn’t stop to help her despite her cries for help. The hard-shells that found her were not inclined to help her either. They stood around watching her as she struggled to save herself and her child. Struggling only made her sink faster. The brothers were taking bets on how long it would be before she sank all the way. Even now she was up to her last set of arms holding her child high above her trying to protect him from her fate as long as she could. It was this scene that Tangoral walked up on. “Hey Tangoral, do you want to bet on how long she can hold her pup up after she goes under?” one of the brothers asked.

   “No,” he said simply. Her eyes caught his and recognized him as another creature of the forest. The stalker turned toward him and held out her child to him. Her eyes pleading for him to save her child even as she knew she was going to die. A thought past through Tangoral’s mind even as his heart went out to this young mother. He reached out and took the child from her and handed it to one of the surprised brothers.

   “What do you want me to do with this?” he asked.

   “Hold it.”

   “What the… what are you doing?” Doesen asked. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

   “Saving lives,” Tangoral said. She was very young which made her only a little taller than Tangoral. “Give me your claw.” Grabbing Doesen’s claw he reached out and grabbed the stalker’s claw just before she went completely under.

   “Do you know what you’re doing?” he asked bracing himself.

   “No... I want to try something.” Tangoral pulled her slowly out of the quicksand. He took her child from the brother and gave it back to her. She hugged her child and then nearly crushed Tangoral as she hugged him. Eight brothers had sixteen heavy guns aimed at this young female stalker. If she twitched wrong they would send her to hell, but she stayed glued to Tangoral which to her was her only protection from the gun toting hard-shells.

   It was a great surprise to everyone at the dwelling when Tangoral returned with a stalker in tow. As more brothers pointed their guns at her, she got even closer to Tangoral. Zothor wanted to see Tangoral when he returned. So when Tangoral entered the room Zothor had turned into a temporary office the first words out of his mouth were, “Are you nuts?

   “Maybe,” Tangoral replied. “But so far the experiment is successful.”

   “What experiment?” Zothor asked. As a tree dweller he knew Tangoral did not always think like a brother, but this was way off the deep end.

   “I’ve always wondered if stalkers could be domesticated. This was an opportunity to find out.”

   “Ok, but I’m having a round the clock guard put on her for the safety of all concerned.”

   “Agreed.”

   “We’ve finished the count on the weapons, food, and other things,” Zothor said keeping one eye on the stalker.

   “You’ve found guns, the food, and a lot of other things missing I bet,” Tangoral said as he stroked the stalker’s back.

   “Fifty-seven guns to be exact. Seventeen of them are heavy guns the rest were all light guns. A lot of ammo is missing as well. All for light guns.”

   “And the rest?”

   “Pots, pans, knifes and other bits and pieces of metal. The food is harder to calculate but a lot is gone.”

   “Tree people.”

   “That would be my guess. Candean said you went up to talk to one that was watching us,” Zothor said asking an unasked question.

   “I spoke with the leader of a tribe a few days travel from here,” Tangoral replied.

   “Spoke to him. It looked like you nearly killed him,” Doesen said as he kept an eye and his guns trained on the stalker who had gone to sit in a corner of the room to nurse her child. “Remind me never to just talk with you.”

   “I only disabled him to keep from being killed.”

   “He tried to kill you?” Zothor asked a bit concerned.

   “In his mind he probably thought I would betray the People. So yes, he tried to kill me, but he was too slow and too close to me,” Tangoral said. “It was a trick that my father taught me when I was very small.”

   “Tangoral just reached out and touched him. I’ve never seen anyone hit the ground so fast. He couldn’t move and could hardly breathe,” Doesen said filling in the details.

   “Well, what did you find out?” Zothor asked.

   “The attack on this dwelling was induced. The healer’s name is Saralashaw. She did not cause the attack. The leader of the tribe did all the actual work. The red brothers drove him from their lands and he move his tribe to the lands held by the green brothers. He’s been looking for revenge ever since. He seems willing to sacrifice his people to satisfy the hate that fills his heart. That is why I have sent for the healer,” Tangoral replied.

   “The healer that caused all this is coming here?” Zothor was worried that Tangoral might not understand if he had to have the healer destroyed.

   “My sister would not intentionally do something like this without extreme provocation.”

   “Your sister?” Zothor asked dumbfounded.

   “She Who Sings to the Trees is coming here,” Tangoral said translating her name for Zothor. “It was thought she was dead. It has been many cycles of the sun since I or any of my people last saw her. I never gave up hope though.”

   “This would be a time of joy if it were not for the one hundred and eighty-three brothers, sisters, and their children all dead, killed must horribly.”

   “Don’t you think I know that? I still see the shells of the dead children of this dwelling lying in dried pools of their own blood,” Tangoral said as tears filled his eyes at the memory. “This is why I want her to come here. I want to try and stop this madness. She must be made to see the harm that has been done here. The green brothers set up the conditions of their own destruction. Sooner or later the stalkers would have attacked this dwelling on their own. They were just given a push by a man whose heart is filled with hatred for your whole race. Every new death adds fuel to the fire that burns in his heart. More deaths here will not help the problem.”

   “Then we will welcome her,” Zothor said.

   

   The whole tribe followed their healer expecting to see her killed by the hard-shells. Saralashaw came down to the ground and walked straight for the dwelling. She was tall, young, and beautiful. Blown by the breeze her long brown hair caressed her shoulders and wrapped around her waist. Saralashaw expected to be killed at any moment especially when twenty hard-shells rose from their hiding places all around her. She was scared to death but she did not let it show. She stopped when she saw Tangoral walking toward her. Tangoral stopped in front of her. “The others thought you were dead. Mother always thought you’d come back with the Great Cure.” he said.

   “I’ve missed your constant barrage of questions,” Saralashaw said as tears streamed down her face. A moment later they were crying tears of joy on each others shoulders as they embraced one another. “How is Mom?” she asked wiping tears from her eyes.

   Tangoral was silent for a moment. “She and father were killed.” Tangoral watched the shock of the news register on here face.

   “How?” Tears were beginning to pour from her eyes again.

   “Hard-shell hunters. Hunters that never left the comfort of the forest.”

   “Who returned the honor to our dead?” Saralashaw asked.

   “I did with the same weapon you used here, but on a much smaller scale,” Tangoral said.

   “I didn’t do anything here. These hard-shells have done nothing to us.”

   “I know you didn’t, but Kittanota did.”

   “He wouldn’t…,” she began to say. Saralashaw remembered all the metal Kittanota had returned with. Taken from a raid on a hard-shell dwelling, he said.

   “Seventy-eight hard-shell children died here. Eaten alive by stalkers,” Tangoral said. “I helped lay to rest what remained of their little bodies. I live with the blue hard-shells now, and I go to school where I learn the knowledge of the hard-shells with their children. I have an adopted hard-shell brother. We have begun to trade with the hard-shells. Our children play with their children and then to come here and see their broken empty little bodies lying in their own blood…” Tangoral trailed off as tears streamed down his face. “My closest friends are their children. If this had been our dwelling your husband would not have returned to you, and I would have taken my time killing him.”

   Saralashaw was shocked by her brother. She had never known him to hurt even the smallest of creatures. To hear that he had killed to give honor to the dead and considered killing her husband to avenge some hard-shell children was almost more than she could handle all at once. “You have no idea what he and his people have been through,” she said in Kittanota’s defense.

   “Saralashaw, we have been driven from our home twice since you have been gone. The last time they burned our home killing many of our people including our parents. Yes, I do have an idea what he has been through.”

   “So instead of killing those that would drive us from our homes, you make friends with them. That is so like you Tangoral.”

   “By taking a chance I have stopped the killing in a small part of the world. Kittanota can only escalate the killing. Raids on hard-shell homes to take a few shunails and a couple of metal trinkets will only cause the hard-shells to drive you from your home again. If Kittanota uses the weapons he took from here on the hard-shells it will give the hard-shells an excuse to kill us all.”

   “What weapons?” Saralashaw asked.

   “Fifty-seven of their exploding stone throwers. Seventeen of which he cannot use because he has the wrong kind of stones for them. For every hard-shell he might kill with the stone throwers ten hard-shells wanting to kill us will take their place. The stone throwers they bring with them will be more powerful than anything you have seen before,” Tangoral replied.

   Zothor listened long enough. “Enough talk of such weighty matters. This should be a happy time for you two,” he said. Saralashaw was so surprised to hear a hard-shell speak she was speechless. “We have prepared a private dinner for you with myself and a few of Tangoral’s friends and his new pet. If this had been our dwelling, under different circumstances, a gathering would have been called. You would have had to recite all that you have been through since Tangoral last saw you to all the hard-shells that live in the dwelling. Tonight, however, you have been spared the telling of your story.”

   “What’s a gathering?” Saralashaw asked.

   “A really big dinner with more food than you could imagine with a story at the end of the meal,” Tangoral replied.

   “You have another pet?” Saralashaw asked her brother.

   “Another pet, what was his other pet?” Zothor asked.

   “He tried to keep a small long neck,” she replied.

   “This one is not much better. He’s trying to domesticate a young female stalker.”

   “Tangoral are you nuts? The long neck kept trying to eat him,” she told Zothor.

   “He didn’t keep trying to eat me, and the stalker is working out much better than the long neck,” Tangoral said in his own defense.

   “What happen to the long neck?” Tragal who was one of the soldiers that formed Saralashaw’s escort asked.

   “He escaped,” Tangoral replied.

   Saralashaw was surprised that another hard-shell spoke the language of the tree people. “It escaped alright, right after it bit him. Do all you hard-shells speak our language?” she asked.

   “Most of the brothers and sisters at our dwelling can speak and understand a few words. A few have mastered your language. It’s not hard once you understand the relationship between to two languages,” Tragal replied.

   “Tragal got a crash course,” Tangoral injected.

   “The long neck bit him?” Zothor asked as they were walking toward the dwelling.

   “Our father was away at the time, and I had to save him,” Saralashaw replied.

   “You’re never going to let me forget that are you?” Tangoral asked.

   “No, never. I remember how frantic mother was at the time.”

   “I’m lucky to be alive. She had never done a healing before. I got infected and then I got really sick.”

   “But you lived, didn’t you?”

   “Barely.”

   They are brother and sister alright, Zothor thought.

   

   Dinner was roasted shunail with vegetables with sweet bread for desert. The guest list consisted of Zothor, Rownan, Doesen, Candean, Tragal, and Ommaro representing the Blue Brotherhood. LaKayzin and LeTilleantum represented the green brothers and sisters. Tangoral and Saralashaw represented the tree dwellers. LaKayzin was sustained as the dwelling clan leader until the Green Brotherhood leadership could pick another. LaCowso was given the job of assistant to the dwelling clan leader, but he would not stay in the same room with a stalker. Therefore, he did not attend the dinner by choice, sending his apologies instead. The stalker sat next to Tangoral with her child most of the time. Her guard had been reduced to one blue soldier who relaxed where he could get a clear shot off if need be.

   LeTilleantum was delighted to find that the tree dwellers were her counterparts among the tree people as she learned what they called themselves. Tangoral translated her endless stream of questions for Saralashaw. Saralashaw fired off questions of her own. She was starting to like these hard-shells. Tangoral was beginning to feel like he was caught in the middle when there was a commotion at the end of the table. Zothor stood up and place his claws on the table. “What do you mean you can’t do it? It’s already done,” he said glaring at LaKayzin.

   “You should have asked us?” LaKayzin shot back.

   “I don’t need to ask anything. You are were chosen by your fellow brothers to lead because of a wonderful act of bravery and quick thinking, but the reality is that if the attack had come one day sooner or a few days later you’d all be dead. You brought down the wrath of God on you because of your disobedience to his commandments and now you want to continue in the same foolishness. The articles are quite clear in this case. I can assume the leadership during a state of emergency when there are no others of the dwelling leadership left alive to take charge. I can hold it until your leadership sends a replacement or you are confirmed by the leadership as the dwelling clan leader here. A dispatch to your leadership has already been sent. I should expect they will respond very quickly.”

   “We have come to your rescue,” Zothor continued. “We have cleaned your dwelling and buried your dead. Their blood still stains your floor.” Saralashaw looked down at the floor when Tangoral translated that part. She thought that the hard-shells had dyed their floor a reddish brown. “We have recovered ninety-three percent of your herds. A few seven-days ago we would have been lucky to recover three percent of your herds. It took a tree dweller to show us a better way to manage our herds. We are now able to recover our herds no matter how scattered they become. Now, you complain because I released fifty percent of your herds to restore the ecological balance to the area your leadership inadvertently caused to be destroyed and thereby causing the disaster that occurred here.”

   “I am your dwelling clan leader for the moment, and I’m willing to divert most questions and operations of this dwelling to you. But, I am not a stand in leader; I am a dwelling clan leader. I have been confirmed and sustained as such. My dwelling prospers because of our obedience to all the commands of God. We do not waver in our obedience simply because we may run into hard times. God tests the faithful and he rewards those that stand firm. When I tell you to do something, you will do it, and you will do it without question, is that clear?” Zothor was mad, never had anyone questioned his judgment or his authority before. LaKayzin had never been chewed out by a dwelling clan leader until now. He felt really small as he looked at Rownan and the others for a little help.

   Rownan held up his claws in submission. “I’m afraid Zothor’s interpretation of the law is quite correct,” the councilor said.

   “The leadership will not understand…,” LaKayzin began to say.

   Rownan interrupted. “Your leadership will understand if they are wise and filled with compassion as I believe they are. In this case, I believe they would not expect you to recover any of your herds. I say this because it is what I would do as a member of the council of the Blue Brotherhood. When Zothor became the clan leader of his dwelling it was the poorest of our dwellings. Now it is one of the richest. His dwelling has been very blessed by our Creator. If you desire to be the dwelling clan leader here after this dwelling has been restored to full working order then watch and learn from one of our best dwelling clan leaders.”

   Zothor was still standing there staring at LaKayzin. “Are we clear in this matter?” he asked again.

   “Yes Clan Leader, we are,” LaKayzin replied.

   “Good,” Zothor said as he settled back down. “What I have done is for the good of all LaKayzin. Do not think that I did not weigh all those questions that you raised before I made my decision. My heart weeps for your dead, but I do not care to come back and bury the rest of you.”

   “I should not have questioned your judgment Clan Leader. Please forgive me; I was not prepared for the responsibility of leadership thrust upon me. I only questioned you out of concern for those whose lives are in my claws.”

   “I understand and share your concerns, and I forgive you, but there is nothing real to forgive.”

   Tangoral finished translating for his sister, but she was not really listening. Saralashaw was still staring at the floor. She had a brief tour of the dwelling before dinner and all the floors were the same rusty brown color. The amount of blood it would take to dye all the floors of the hard-shell home staggered her. “Tangoral,” she whispered, “are all the floors of their home this color?”

   “Yes, as far as I know. There may be a few rooms that still have white floors, but I haven’t found one yet,” he replied.

   “How many?”

   “One hundred and eighty-nine. We found six more bodies yesterday. Four adults and two children. Thirty-seven are still missing”

   The interaction with the hard-shells had changed Saralashaw. She no longer saw them as enemies. “It seemed like a harmless question,” she said.

   “What?” Tangoral asked.

   “I told Kittanota how to do this. I’m so sorry.” Tears began to roll down her face. “I would never do something like this, but this is all my fault. I’m so sorry,” she cried as she buried her face in her hands. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying. All eyes were on Saralashaw. LaKayzin started to say something but Zothor held up his claw for silence. He got up and walked down to where she sat and settled down next to her. Saralashaw was a healer. To take the lives of so many stung her soul. Through her tears she looked at Zothor. “I did this,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.”

   “You didn’t do this,” Zothor said softly.

   “Yes, I did. It was my knowledge that caused the deaths of so many. I am to blame.” Once again she buried her face in her hands sobbing, “I’m sorry,” over and over again.

   “Daughter look at me,” Zothor said. Saralashaw looked up with tears still flowing from her eyes. “You did not do this. We know that you did not do this. I know it was your knowledge that was use here, but it only hastened what would have happened anyway. Tangoral has assured me that the stalkers would have attacked this dwelling sooner or later anyway.”

   “I told Kittanota how to draw the stalkers to a certain area and how to keep them there. I told him how to help the stalkers to overcome their fear of your weapons, and what it would take to get them to attack all at once. This is all my fault, I am so sorry,” she sobbed.

   “If the brothers here had obeyed the laws of God, Kittanota could not have gain power over them, and all your knowledge would have been useless. This is the only place stalkers could get food for many days travel in all directions, that is a fact known to us,” Zothor said. “Raids by stalkers were on the rise for almost a full cycle of the sun. The records of this dwelling show this. I do not believe your mate has the patience to wait a full cycle of the sun to do what he did. I think he saw a dwelling surrounded by a large numbers of stalkers and then got you to tell him how to make them attack this dwelling.”

   “Saralashaw, Kittanota has learned that it is easy to steal to from the hard-shells to get what he wants,” Tangoral said. “The hard-shells have driven him and his people from their home time and time again for this reason.”

   “A few raids by tree dwellers we tend to over look,” Zothor said. “But, when the raids happen too often it becomes more than a minor annoyance. Then we go out and drive you away and burn your home so you won’t come back.”

   “Saralashaw, Kittanota now has hard-shell weapons and he intends to use them,” Tangoral said. “We need to get them back. If he uses them on the hard-shells, the hard-shells will go to war with us, all of us. All the tribes will be in danger. He thinks with a few weapons he can kill all the hard-shells, but what he cannot comprehend is that there are more hard-shells than there are trees in the forest.”

   “The weapons he has taken are the smallest of our weapons. We have weapons far more powerful than anything he took,” Zothor said.

   “If we don’t get the weapons back many more will die, and I can promise you that in the end most of those that die will not be hard-shells,” Tangoral said.

   “What can I do, he won’t listen to me. He never listens to me. He didn’t bring the hard-shells’ weapons back home or I would know about it. He tried to stop me from coming to see you. I should have left him. I should have left him a long time ago. This is all my fault. I’m so sorry,” she said and then began to cry again.

   “This is not good, not good at all,” Rownan said when he heard the translation.

   “It will take them time to learn to use the weapons effectively,” Tragal said. “He will have to build mounts each time to be really effective. The weapons Tangoral’s people have are well mounted in fixed positions and about half of them are our heavy guns.”

   “You gave guns to tree dwellers?” Rownan asked looking at Zothor.

   “Don’t be ridiculous, of course not,” Zothor said.

   “Their guns came from hunters that had the misfortune to wander too close to a band of stalkers. If I thought they would use the guns offensively I would have disabled them when I had the chance,” Tragal said. “As I said, they’re in fixed positions and used mainly to defend themselves from long necks deep in the Great Swamp where they moved after their home was burned.”

   “This not good at all. We have to get those guns back,” Rownan said.

   “Just what do you think we’re trying to do here?” Zothor asked a little put out with the councilor.

   “The guns we have are for the defense of our home. I can summon a far more powerful offensive weapon if needed,” Tangoral said. “I would like it if we didn’t need guns at all.”

   Zothor put his claws around Saralashaw to comfort her. She looked up at him. “Saralashaw, all we are asking is that you try and help us stop the killing before it starts,” he said.

   “I’ll try. I have to try,” she said. She looked at LaKayzin and LeTilleantum with tears running down her face. “I’m so sorry,” was all she could find to say to them.

   

   The next morning Saralashaw went out to talk to her people. They were so surprised to see her. They thought for sure the hard-shells had eaten her. After he pick himself up off the floor Kittanota followed after his people and then filled their minds with all kinds of stories as they watched their healer enter the hard-shell home. He took most of the men with him when he left leaving mostly women to wait for their healer to return. Saralashaw took her people and returned home as quickly as possible. Kittanota was not there, nor were any of the men with him. She returned to the dwelling with all speed. Even now it was too late, she thought. Once again she was greeted with great tenderness by the blue hard-shell leader. “I failed. Kittanota has already gone off to where only the Maker of All Things knows where, and he took most of the men with him,” she told Zothor.

   Tangoral translated for Rownan and LaKayzin. “We need to warn the clans,” Rownan said.

   “Clan Leader, we don’t have enough brothers to protect ourselves if you leave now,” LaKayzin said.

   “Tangoral, what do you think he will do now?” Zothor asked.

   “He might try and attack us, but he knows how well trained we are. Surprise is his best weapon, and we are already prepared for him, he knows this. Kittanota is not stupid. This dwelling is in no danger. It is a battle already won, but we should leave some brothers here just in case. He wants revenge for all the atrocities inflicted on him and his people. He’ll attack the Red Brotherhood and any other brothers he may come across between here and there,” Tangoral replied.

   “Can you track him?”

   “I could, but it would take time as I’m sure he may have thought of that possibility. He would hide his tracks well. I would never be able to catch him, but I could follow him. I might be able to guess the direction he might head and get ahead of him. If I guessed wrong it would be a waste of time.”

   “Saralashaw, what do you think Kittanota will do now?” Zothor asked. “He’s your mate; you should know him better than any one.”

   Tangoral is right,” she said. “First, he will make sure he cannot be followed, and then he will go somewhere and learn to use the weapons he has taken. The people would follow him anywhere. There is something about him that draws people to him. He will try and get others to follow him. He will add to the weapons he already has if he can. With each victory no matter how small he will gain supporters. We have no love for you hard-shells. You have killed us and driven us from our homes too many times. Young men will flock to him. Revenge is in the hearts of all the tree people. The time is right; Kittanota will exploit the hatred in our hearts. I see it so clearly. He will win many battles until your anger is kindled against us, and then you will sweep us from this world. We do not know the meaning of being hunted yet, but we will, and it’s all my fault, I so sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen.” Saralashaw began to cry again.

   Zothor put his claw around her. “It will be alright,” he said. “We’ll stop this somehow.”

   “Stop it, stop it how?” Rownan asked.

   “We must take from him what he needs most,” Tangoral said.

   “What more guns?” Rownan said.

   “No, followers,” Tangoral replied.

   “You want us to kill tree dwellers?” LaKayzin asked.

   “No, I want you to stop killing tree people. I want you to make friends with them. I want you to give them food, and metal tools, and other things they might want or need. It will be harder for him to get followers if the reasons for following him can be removed. Would you follow someone into battle against a friend? This is not something you would do, nor is it something we would do. After that we can try to cut off his ability to re-supply himself.”

   “You ask a lot,” Rownan said.

   “It only seems like a lot at first,” Tangoral said. “You will find that there are things we can do for you that you cannot do for yourselves. Then one day you will wakeup and wonder how you ever got along without us and we too will wonder how we got along without you as well. Zothor has taken the first steps in this direction and you have seen the results. Your whole way of life is about to change because of a few simple steps. Imagine what the world would be like when we learn to walk side by side as brothers.”

   “I can see the wisdom in your argument, but implementing will not be easy.”

   “Nothing in life that really matters comes easy. Kittanota is looking for the easy path. The brothers of this dwelling went looking for the easy path and you see what became of them. In time, Kittanota will come to the same end and only in death will he see his mistakes,” Tangoral said.

   “If we do not do as Tangoral has suggested the wrath of God will be poured out on all of us, tree dweller and Brachyura alike,” Zothor said.

   “I too can see the wisdom of this,” LaKayzin said. “How would we begin? I am willing to try, but I may not be the leader here long.”

   “Then I will tell you something by which you may profit,” Tangoral replied. “The reason your herd numbers are down is because one or more of your great shunails are about to change nest trees. When they do they will pick a tree closer to the swamp in line with the old tree. Also if you send scouting parties out to watch the edge of the swamp you may find other shunails that nest there. Have you not noted that all the eggs were not against the tree as they should be?”

   “I seem to remember hearing something about that,” LaKayzin replied. “I’m a soldier and I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have.”

   “Where do we begin with this plan of yours?” Rownan asked.

   “We begin right here with Kittanota’s own people,” Tangoral said. “Saralashaw, what is it that your people would like the most?”

   “Why begin here? I would think it would be better to start elsewhere in an area that Kittanota is unknown to the tree dwellers of that area?” Rownan asked.

   “By starting here we cut off the moral support from home,” Zothor said.

   “Zothor is correct. We force him to stand alone without the support of his own people. The men he took with him must in time return again to their home and their families. When they return they will find that their wives and children will not support their actions and they will not return to aid him in his cause when they see what can be gained by being our friends,” Tangoral said.

   “So Saralashaw tell us what you need, and we will see that you get it,” Zothor said.

   

~~~

   

   It was a surprised group of tree people that watched as their healer guided ten blue hard-shells loaded with metal pots and pans and other metal things into their home. They were followed by three more hard-shells herding a small herd of shunails. The hard-shells were well selected as they all spoke the language of the tree people. By the setting of the sun the blue hard-shells had won the hearts of the old men, women and children left behind with their kindness and willingness to be of service to their fellow beings. It was the children that had the best time as they got to ride on the hard-shells.

   

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