The next morning improved when I heard that the healer had been kept up all night by a puking, fevered child. One of the huntresses’ apprentices apparently had eaten something gone foul. I kept my smile to myself when I saw the apprentice standing dazed and getting chewed out by her mentor for her lack of attention. She deserved it for thinking she was so much better than me. Spiritflower and feverluck had been simple to spot and pluck when Rawley was distracted by shooting down a couple birds with her sling.
Camp was broken down quickly after the morning meal and Rawley and I moved ahead to scout with the other lone huntresses. The other girl hadn’t recovered from her illness enough and was forced to travel with the tribe for the day. There wasn’t a lot to look at as we went—even if Rawley warned that danger could be lurking in every dip of the rolling hills that spread out around us. Trees were few and far between in this area as we had left the forest and bluffs behind when we began the run. The horizon stretched all round, softened only by the ankle high grasses and late blooming wildflowers, and the dark smudge in the distance that marked our destination. There wasn’t a Picker band in sight. Which was how it should be given that we were technically still in our territory. The huntresses patrolled frequently while they hunted to make sure none of the banished got close enough to harass the tribe or settled in where they didn’t belong. Once we left our territory though the chances of being targeted by a Picker band rose considerably as the land between ours and the mountains remained unclaimed. We might be a large tribe, which afforded us some safety, but the Picker bands still tended to view us as an easier target because we didn’t have as much practice fending them off like the runner tribes.
Rawley kept me occupied by quizzing me about the best strategies to attack and defend in different scenarios. She had me pretend I had been left stranded with only my sling and a few stones, that I was starving, and the only animals I had found to hunt were a mother wolverine and her cubs. I came up with strategies of ambush, a hit and run, direct assault, and traps. Each time I was met with the words “You’re dead” and made to think through it again, often after a grueling set of questions, such as where I was hiding out, why I hadn’t considered the weather in the my ambush when she hadn’t told me it was raining, and why I was even risking my life to attack the wolverines when I could be gathering the berries and edible plants around me instead. It was frustrating and made my head ache, but I had grown to appreciate the way she made me think about every angle of a situation over the past couple months. Rawley seemed to enjoy the times when I thought of something new that she hadn’t considered before, even if in the end my strategy didn’t work. It was also during that thought experiment that we realized a problem so basic to me surviving on my own that it almost laughable, simply because it wasn’t something either of us had ever had to consider before. It came about when Rawley was quizzing me about how I was going to eat the wolverine cub I had stolen in that scenario.
I opened my mouth to answer, and then shut it. She waited for me to answer, patient as ever. After several long moments I licked my lower lip and asked, “Rawley, how am I supposed to cook it?”
She raised her eyebrows slightly. “That’s what I want to know.”
“No, what I mean is how am I supposed to cook it without fire?”
She was only confused for a moment. “You don’t have the goddess’s common blessing, of course you don’t, and without it…”
Without it, without someone with the blessing of fire, I was good as dead on my own. I would be vulnerable to the night predators, likely frozen, and without any way to cook the meat and important fat it had that would give me the energy I needed to survive. Instead, with the mark I did have, I would be plunged back into that terrible, helpless state where I could only lie down, starving, unable to die even if I wanted it so badly I could taste it like honey on my tongue.
I tried to keep my voice steady when I asked her my next question because I already knew her answer. “Do you know how to make fire? Without the blessing?”
Rawley shook her head. “There isn’t any need for it. Even the whisper women always have one or two fire starters, to light their fires and do other mundane tasks.” She seemed to come to a quick decision. “I won’t be able to send you on any overnight trips for your training alone, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find another apprentice to join you. And when you go to the Seedling Palace you’ll have the fire starter servants to make the fires for you.”
I didn’t respond to her, and she let me be. The knowledge that I was completely dependent on those around me to make sure I didn’t sink back to the edge of death grated on something deep inside me. I was my own person, I was working toward my own goals, so why did I have to rely on someone else to meet my basic needs? I wasn’t useless, wasn’t incompetent. And yet, just because they had fire, the twins were more likely to survive—to live—on their own than me. I might not die because of my blessing, but I definitely would not call that state living. I glared at the spot where my dress covered my mark on my thigh. Of course, this was one of the few, stupid instances when the goddess catered to the idea of fairness and only gave everyone a single blessing. If those with the blessed marks really were her favorites she should have given us two: our unique ability and fire.
I sulked until we reached the Crossing River. Then Rawley set me to preparing and checking the lines that would help us reach the other side of the river while she and the huntresses searched for the best crossing point. The lines were hidden in a hollow made by three stone slabs to protect them from the weather and pests. Even with all the training Rawley had put me through I still felt sore and tired by the time I lugged away all the smaller stones blocking the hollow’s entrance and pulled all six lines into the sunlight. Each line was made up of a rope about as wide as my fist and ten times my height lashed to stone spikes the length of my arm on each end. My job was to make sure there wasn’t any weak points in the rope and adjust the lines’ length once the crossing point was determined. If anyone lost items to the river or got swept down stream it wasn’t going to be because of me. I found two weaknesses. One of the lines had been nearly chewed through by some pest, but it was near enough to the end of the line that we could mostly likely tie off the rope before the weakness and it wouldn’t matter. The other problem was more serious. I noticed it as soon as I started pulling the second to last line out. It looked like someone hadn’t been careful enough when putting away the lines last year because one of the stone spikes was fractured. Another spike could be made but it would likely take a long time to find another suitable piece of stone and carve the spike. I showed it to Rawley as the leading members of the rest of the tribe caught up to us and started to settle along the bank for the midday rest.
She frowned as she looked it over. “It’ll shatter the first time someone tugs a little too hard on the line, much less support the heavier loads.” She looked up to scan those who had arrived and nodded. “I’ll let Ghani know so we can see if anyone has a suitable piece of stone on hand to make a new one, but most likely we’ll have to make this crossing with only five lines.”
Crossing with only five lines was doable, though there would be grumbling about the delay it would cause. If anyone remembered who had put the lines away last year, that person was about to have a very bad day. After pulling out and checking the last line I got to rest while the others prepared for the crossing. The day wasn’t quite warm enough for me to stick my feet in the chilly river water before I had to, but I did sit on the very edge of the bank while I ate my midday meal of flat bread and dried fish. The Crossing River’s waters were clear and edged with stone. They always looked deceptively placid, but I knew the current could get strong enough to yank a woman’s feet out from under them and was deep enough even at its shallowest points that I could only reach the bottom on tiptoe.
A suitable piece of stone was found over the course of the next hour and given to Mond, who was the most skilled at shaping stone into things other than spear heads, after Ghani worked out compensation for the tribe member who was losing the valuable stone. Mond would shape the stone during the time it took for the rest of the tribe to cross the river so that the sixth line would be ready for the return trip.
The clack of stone hitting stone pierced the air as Mond began his work and the spikes of the five remaining lines were pounded into the dirt where the river widened a little ways upstream. The current was still strong there, but it was the widest, shallowest point for miles. One of the lone huntresses, Nole, once again had the dubious honor of the first crossing. She was on the taller side and had a defined swimmer’s body after years of training the tribe’s children to swim and excelling at our specialty of spear fishing. She never seemed fazed as she stripped and looped the free end of her line over one shoulder and across her chest, threading the stone spike around the loops so the river couldn’t easily pull the line free. She tied a pouch holding a stone to help her drive the spike into the ground around her neck; the threat of drowning or getting pulled free of the line and down river never making a dent in her confidence that she would make it to the other side.
Still, the tribe held its collective breath as Nole stepped into the river and pushed off for the other side. No slide step across the slippery, stone bed of the river for her, not without a line to secure her way. She cut through the water like a fish even with the extra weight of the spike and stone and the rope dragging in the water. The river forced her into an arc as she continued underwater and we could only track her progress as the line moved and continued to be pulled into the water. She didn’t come up for breath until she heaved herself onto the other bank. Nole wasn’t foolish enough to crow in victory and risk drawing the goddess’s attention, but she did grin and slap her chest once and many in the tribe repeated the gesture back to her as they relaxed and started to breath again. Blood would be offered later, once the tribe was across. Nole pounded her spike into the ground so that rope cut a straight line across the river, but there was still some slack, so the rope was retied on our side so that it held tight and was a good foot out of the water.
Then it was Rawley’s turn. Only one line could be set up at time to make sure the lines didn’t cross and drown those tasked with setting them up. Rawley had a simpler time crossing the river than Nole though she had more to carry—a water resistant sack with her and Nole’s clothing, slings, and pebbles for ammunition as well as her line. She tied the sack to her stomach with her line and spike, which looked odd until she grabbed Nole’s rope and hooked her knees over it so that her stomach faced the sky. The river still dragged on her and she was still mostly submerged in the water, but by climbing across the line her crossing was a lot more straight forward and less dangerous than Nole’s free swim had been. Crossing in about half the time it had taken Nole, Rawley pounded her spike into the other bank while Nole dressed and kept an eye out on the surrounding hills. The river marked the edge of our territory and there had been more than one instance of ambush by Pickers as we crossed in the past. The next three lines were set up quickly, following Rawley’s example, by Pack members, each one further upstream than the last. Once their lines were secure and they were clothed they set up a small perimeter, and Nole and Rawley set out to scout the different paths the tribe could take to continue our run.
That was when the true crossing started. Four of the five lines were used to balance travioses and other large items as tribe members hung onto the lines and pushed them across. Only one piece could be pushed across a pair of lines at a time, so that too much weight or actions of two different parties didn’t pull a spike free. Since we didn’t have the sixth line, the last line was used for individual crossings and to carry children and smaller items across when usually that would have had to wait. Some made multiple crossings across the river, but they could only do so two or three times before the cold water and current sapped their strength and they had to dress and warm up before making another crossing, if necessary. Many of those did cross multiple times were huntresses, used to cold lake water and stronger for their daily training.
I crossed on the fifth line as soon as I could. I couldn’t get enough traction on the bottom of the river, so I followed my mentor’s example and hooked my legs as well as my hands onto the rope, my pack balanced above my face on the rope and stuffed to the brim with my dress and shoes. The water was biting cold and the current dragged at me as I inched my way across. My shoulders and arms burned with the effort of pulling myself across and keeping my pack from dipping into the water by the time I was halfway to the other side. I almost lost my things at one point when I slid the pack forward and pulled too far to the right, over corrected, and fumbled the pack into the water. The current grabbed onto it immediately and I barely managed to loop my arm through one of the handles and pull it back to me with gritted teeth. I didn’t try to balance the pack back on the rope, but focused instead on reaching the other bank as quickly as possible. I crossed the rest of the way without anymore mishap though the extra pull of the river on my pack dragged at me. Everything in my pack was soaked through, except for my sling that had been packed into a small very water resistant bag. The leather my pack was made out of could resist a good amount of rain, but the bag itself wasn’t watertight. A few people gave me concerned looks, but didn’t offer to help once they saw I was the healer’s eldest daughter. The twins might have elicited more help, but the stigma of my training and close association with Levain cost me any chance of that. She hadn’t wasted any of her influence on me as she had when she used it to help the twins get playmates. Instead, I found a place near one of the dung fires that been started for warmth, and laid out what I could to dry, using the berth the other tribe members gave me.
I watched the river as I waited and saw Levain and Father help the twins across. Of course they got help when at their age I was told that I was more than old enough to make the crossing myself. I had to be strong to become a whisper woman, be able to face things alone, and Levain had her herbs to carry and Father had his hands full with the twins and his other children. She didn’t seem to have any trouble going back to get her herbs now. Adley turned her nose up at me when she saw me watching and tugged Kem toward the fire furthest from me. The tribe gave them a berth too, though not as large and a few kids who had already crossed soon got the twins involved in a game of tag. Apparently, Levain wasn’t being as open with their training or the twins had somehow managed to wheedle out of it. I smiled sourly at my drying things. At least one of them would have to learn eventually—Levain would need an apprentice sooner rather than later. Demand for her services always increased when we reached Grislander’s Maw.
Rawley returned around three hours later as the last of tribe’s things were transported across the river. The fixed sixth crossing rope took the work of two huntresses to get across, but using the other guiding lines they were able to get across without too much trouble. All that was left was the livestock. I saw Rawley confer with Nole—who had shown up a while before—Ghani, and Fenris as the three middle lines were taken down and stored in a second stone hollow on this side of the river. I felt the tension ratchet up in the camp as people noticed the preparations were being made for the livestock’s crossing. Just as with Nole’s first crossing, we were practiced and skilled enough that nothing normally went wrong, but there was still the potential for the animals to panic and the river to steal a large portion of our herds. The dung fires were snuffed out and everyone but the herders pressed back to the expanded perimeters of the Pack’s watch to give the animals room when they thundered across. The sheep herders went first, whistling signals to each other and taking turns to drive their animals through the channel marked by the remaining two ropes. The herders on the first bank used their sticks and large shepherd dogs to drive the sheep toward the river and through the channel. The dogs kept the sheep going forward across the river while the sheep herder already on the far bank rounded up and calmed the sheep’s panic with treats and the help of their dogs. Once the sheep were across the herders used the lines to cross the river. Most of the sheep made it though a few younger ones weren’t able to fight the current and were swept down stream. A herder and huntress went after them to round up any that still managed to make it shore on their own. After that the reindeer herders drove their herds across and it went much the same.
Everyone couldn’t quite relax though until the last two lines were brought across. A different lone huntress from Rawley brought the second to last line across using the last line, and then it was Nole’s turn again. She crossed back to the other bank without any trouble using the line and looped it around herself as she had before. We watched as she pushed off the bank and swam through the clear, cold river water. She started up stream again, and the current pushed her down in an arch. I narrowed my eyes, but the arc still looked smaller than it had before. She wasn’t halfway across the river and already in line with the secured spike on this side of the river. The rope’s slack billowed around her—and caught around her arm and neck. And then she wasn’t swimming, but thrashing and the staked spike wobbled. Someone screamed and a man and huntress both rushed to the line and started to pull. Nole was a thrashing weight downriver and they had to struggle to pull the rope in. Others joined in to help pull and make sure the line didn’t trip anyone up, huntresses followed the trajectory of the rope and waited on the river bank, ready to pull Nole in once she was in reaching distance. Long seconds ticked by as slowly Nole was dragged closer to shore and then one of the huntresses cried out that she had her and the others scrambled to grab Nole as well. They managed to haul her halfway onto shore before pulling her completely free of the river’s grasp in the next heave. Mother-Levain-strode up as they pulled the line from around her and started snapping orders. Under her direction Nole was placed on her side and after checking her breathing Levain gave her a sharp hit on her back. Nole coughed out water and rolled onto her stomach, gasping. Levain kept her from lying completely on her stomach as the spike she had been swimming with had jabbed a bloody triangle into her sternum, and no doubt she would have terrible bruising all along her chest, neck, and upper left arm. At least Levain couldn’t make her walk through fish guts and infect her wound.
The huntresses quickly backed off as Levain began to treat and bandage Nole, and those that hauled on the line busied themselves with putting it away as the rest of the tribe slowly relaxed and carefully tried not to watch the healer at her work in case the life in her rubbed off on them and drew the goddess’s attention. They needn’t have worried.
Grandmother caught the tribe’s attention at the bank’s edge. “Nole has given her blood to the goddess and the river in thanks for this easy crossing! It is time we do the same.” With great ceremony, she pricked one of her wrists and let the blood fall into the water. Everyone followed her example, including Levain, who didn’t look thrilled to have another patient so early into the run. I waited until most of the tribe had pricked their wrists before I pricked my mark and used my prayer needle to flick the beads of blood into the river’s swift current.
Bio: I'm a recent college grad who loves reading and writing fantasy stories. Romance often gets mixed in as well, but we'll see if that happens with my current work in progress. I decided to post what I'm working on here to help me keep writing consistently now that I can no longer share in the writing club I had in college.