As Harr stepped closer, Ji gripped his walking stick more tightly. Ji always carried a walking stick, but not because he was old and frail. In fact, Ji wasn’t even middle-aged; he was only about 40 years old. He was slender and tall, and had a beard. No other clan members wore a beard out of respect for Ji.
Ji had been the leader of the group most of his life, taking over from his father, who took over from his father, and so on. Just as roles for the observers, interpreters, record keepers, and hunters were passed down from one generation to the other, so it was with leadership. People respected Ji in part because their fathers respected his father, and so on.
Ji did possess those qualities of leadership that made leaders notable. He had a charisma to his voice. He was often tactful in positioning ideas, which helped sway others toward his cause. He rarely ruled by force, but rather won his clan members over to his ideas through cunning arguments. He always had clear ideas, carefully thought-out plans, which he argued persistently and incessantly until he won over every member.
“You found the record book?” Ji asked.
“Yes, but we would like something in return,” Harr said. “Ji, as clan leader, you alone hold the key to our ancestor’s archive. Legend among the record keepers is that before they vanished, they kept detailed records, one of them being a map that pointed their direction of departure. We ask for this ancient map in exchange for the record keeping book.”
Ji looked in amazement at the request, and then paced around. He wore the key around his neck, hung on a necklace with other precious stones, malachite and topaz. The elaborate stone necklace added some decoration to his figure, reinforcing his authority.
“I could just take the book from you, you know,” Ji said. “It’s unlikely that you and the girl could defend yourselves.” He thought on this for a minute. He was skeptical that Harr had so foolishly entered into the forest without a more detailed plan for escape. Surely he knew he couldn’t just waltz into the camp and make demands without an exit strategy. What did Harr have in mind, Ji thought, and why does he want to pursue the legend of the ancestors. Ji looked around to see if there were others hiding in the surrounding environment but saw nothing.
“What will you do with the map once you have it?” Ji asked, reflectively. Truth be told, no one had looked at the archives for years. The only people with authority to look through the archives were the leadership council, who could only do so with the approval of Ji. The archives were buried underground below the leader’s cabin floor. Ji hadn’t looked at them for years. The map was encoded in a way that made it virtually useless. Interpreters had made an attempt to decipher it centuries ago and always came up empty, so it had been abandoned. Did Harr have some kind of new knowledge that would allow him to decrypt it? Did the girl bring something new to the table? Ji looked carefully at the girl, and wondered about her motives and that dreaded notebook they had previously confiscated from her bag. Why was she with Harr? What did she want, but to trap and ensnare their people? Ji wasn’t sure how to interpret their motives, but his curiosity drove him on.
“I want to understand our past,” Harr said, “so I can better understand my future. You have cast me out of the clan, and I am now wander alone in the wilderness. Is it such an odd idea that I would look for the lost people to connect to, who are really my people?”
Ji stroked his beard as he looked deeply into Harr’s face. He neared Ji, looking directly into his eyes, searching for signs of deceit. Then he paced slowly back and forth with his walking stick. He looked in the distant sky, thinking, always holding the walking stick in hand. He could see no stratagem that Harr might be concealing. If he gave Harr the map, the worst they could do is wander off into the remote wilderness and be lost. They would take the map with them, but he could make a copy first, perhaps. The map was surprisingly simple, and practically useless anyway. Maybe this would be a way to get rid of this menace anyway. And if they did have the record book, it would be well worth the effort to secure it again. Without it, their hunting efforts had been noticeably less efficient. The clan had been digging into their reserves for the past week. Ji wasn’t sure how long it would last before they had to resort to other measures, perhaps developing a new strategy.
“Well,” Ji said. “Let’s see the record book and consider the trade, then.”
“First we must see the ancient map,” Harr said. “I have never laid eyes on it myself. For all I know, it could be legend only, something that exists as a tale only.”
Ji looked again at Harr, with distrust in his eyes. Ji lifted his walking stick with one hand near Harr’s head. The stick was about an inch in diameter, and very straight. Harr thought Ji might attack him with the stick, or choke his throat, but actually Ji grabbed a knife from one of the belts of the nearby hunters, and he inserted the knife’s tip into the top of the walking stick, prying the top off. A wooden cap popped off the top of the stick, and he slowly pulled out a rolled up piece of paper. He had carried it inside the stick all these years!
The entire clan was mesmerized as Ji pulled out the paper. It was an extremely thin scroll, ancient in its appearance. The map was rolled up as a one-page scroll and tied with a string in the middle. The map was a copy of the original, to be sure. The original was locked away in the archives, but the copy was a perfect replica, and no one knew the difference.
Ji held the scroll in his right hand.
“I believe this is what you’re after, Harr. Despite your violation of trust, I am prepared to trade you for it. But first, tell me why you want it. What are you going to do with it, after all?”
Deep in the distance, Grandpa crouched behind some bushes and looked at the camp below. He held the string of ten shells and fuses in his hand, and a match book in another. He couldn’t hear very well — mostly his hearing was strong in one ear only, which he angled towards the camp, and his eyesight at far distances failed. He wasn’t sure when he should light the fuses. Timing seemed more critical in this situation than he had anticipated.
Several hunters approached Harr and took his shoulder bag off. They carried it over to Ji.
Ji opened the bag and pulled out the book. The whole clan gasped. One interpreter shouted, “The book! He has returned the book!” Ji held the book in his hands, studying it closely. There was a lot of commotion, and then there was the sound of sticks breaking as Grandpa, about 75 yards in the distance, scattered away.
Observers in the clan heard the noise and turned to see who was there. Ji’s expression changed to anger. Aha, he thought. I knew Harr had a trick up his sleeve, and this must be it. Before anyone could make sense of the one running through the brush, they heard a huge kaboom! The first shell went off. Clan members scrambled for cover, expecting some kind of incoming shot.
Harr and Samantha raced toward Ji, who was still holding the map.
Kaboom! Another shell went off. Clan members ran
Kaboom! The next shell went off. Then two more right in a row: Kaboom! Kaboom!
It sounded like some kind of cannon firing. Clan members looked up, expecting to see an incoming ball of fire coming at them, or atrocious, but there was nothing except the deafening sound.
Harr tackled Ji, who barely realized Harr was charging him, and while he fell to the floor Samantha grabbed his wrist and pulled free the map.
“I have it!” she shouted to Harr.
Kaboom! went another shell.
By now the clan members were less afraid of the thundering kabooms, as they were frightening in sound only, and didn’t result in any projectiles, incoming gunshots, or other threatening objects flying at them.
With map in hand, Samantha raced away from the camp, with Harr following closely behind. The clan members stumbled around in chaos, and Samantha and Harr ran with adrenaline flaring.
Kaboom! Kaboom! The last two shells exploded, but by now the observers were immune to the sounds. They had regained composure and looked for Samantha and Harr. Several observers pointed them out in the distance. Ji was furious. His trust had been violated again.
He pointed two fingers towards Harr and Samantha and instantly an army of observers and hunters rushed toward them, racing with the full force of a hunt.
Samantha and Harr continued their getaway run, and quickly caught up to Grandpa, who was stumbling away from the hunters. Grandpa couldn’t run with much speed, and he was already out of breath. “Go on,” he said. Samantha slowed and try to encourage him on. “C’mon,” she said. “You’ve got to run faster.” Grandpa soon stopped completely and put his hands on his knees, hunched over and out of breath.
“I can’t go,” Grandpa said. “You go.”
Harr leveraged himself under Grandpa and pulled him over his shoulder, carrying him. Harr carried him away from the others, tottering about a bit. Harr was a record keeper, not a hunter. He strained under the weight and nearly tripped several times. The other clan members were closing quickly behind.
“C’mon!” Samantha shouted. But before they could go any further, they were surrounded on all sides by observers and hunters. Hunters held sharp javelins toward them, trapping their escape.
It was over. The plan to get the map had failed. Several of the hunters tackled Harr and pinned him on the ground. Others held Samantha tightly with her arms behind her, stripping the map from her hands. They let Grandpa rest on the ground, recovering his breath. The plan was foolish from the start, Samantha thought. Did they really think they could outsmart an army of woodsmen who knew the forest intimately and natively?
In the distance, one of the interpreters, who had been hunched over the record book, shouted, “It’s a fake! The book is a fake!” This sent the entire clan in an uproar, with observers and hunters shouting angry groans and threats of violence.
Harr sighed deeply and slumped his head to his chest, giving up.
Samantha remembered her knife, but even if she could grasp it, what would she do?
The hunters bound them with rope and marched them back to the main camp. They brought the captives before Ji, whose countenance showed betrayal and anger.
“Take them from my sight,” Ji said, “and bury them in the pits.”