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“Power,” I said. “It will give you power.”

An ash leaf twirled down, yellow against the dark hides on the drying frames. Hawk watched it fall. “What sort of power? Power to kill?”

“Yes,” I said. In the end, what other kind of power is there?

“Do you really mean I could kill a couple of those Valley bastards just with this – power? That would be great. Even my father…” …would approve. That’s what he meant.

And that’s Hawk for you. Always wanting his father’s approval, never getting it. And never getting it because he’s always wanting it. You can play him like a Singer plays a harp.

“If they speak true…” I let my voice drop. “if the Spirits speak true, you could destroy the whole Valley camp in one go. Truly. When I say power, I mean – Power. Power not even your father could ignore.”

Chiefs never ignore power, even from their sons.

Hawk's wide mouth opened and closed again. He spun round on his heel, looking out across the dancing floor to nowhere, and then looked me in the eyes again.

“We should take someone else.” He paused and shook his head. “There ought to be three of us.”

This was a nasty one. I put on my thoughtful face, and waited.

“I will be the leader,” he went on, “you will be the shaman; there should be a third, to help us and fight back to back with us, and also to stand between us. There’s always a third in the tales.”

That was true; there always was a third in the tales. So what? This was real life, Hawk, not the Singer’s tent. I decided to play for time.

“I must consult the Spirits,” I declared. “They named you; it may be that they gave you words of omen. Let us speak of this again; here, between the Singer’s tent and the drying frames, at sunset tomorrow – but till then and in all other places, speak to nobody. The Spirits insisted on that – you must give no hint to anyone.” I held my hand out flat. He laid his hand on mine, palm to palm, his tanned skin to my pale skin, and nodded. It was the best I could hope for; at least now he wouldn’t let it out deliberately – he was far too superstitious.

Next day I listed every single human being in the whole Tribe, and considered every last one of them.

First, I crossed out all the girls and women – why set up competition for myself?

Then I crossed out everyone who couldn’t lift a spear – we needed a fighter.

Then I crossed out everyone who was hand-pledged – we didn’t want someone who was worrying all the time about what his woman was doing at camp behind his back.

It didn’t leave many. I went through them over and over again, every now and then checking I hadn’t forgotten anyone. And eventually I got it down to a single name.

“Stack,” I said to Hawk that evening. “The Spirits pointed to Stack.”

“Stack?”

“Stack.” If you say the same name over and over, it begins to sound stupid. “The Spirits were very clear; your words were inspired. Then the casts pointed again and again to the same person. There is no mistake.”

“But –”

“I agree it’s a surprising choice – I would never have thought of him myself. Even so, if the Spirits say so, they must be right.”

“Yes, I suppose they must.” I could see the thoughts sorting themselves out under that cropped yellow hair. “And he is solid and strong. Good with a club. Not fast, though, and quite a bit shorter than me.”

Most people are shorter than you, Hawk. On the other hand, most people are solider. “No, not fast, but a good lad to guard your back. And he can use a sling.”

“That’s true. Not as well as me, of course.” He looked at me sideways. “You won’t mind, will you? The only girl with two men?”

Oh, for the Stones’ sake! “I am not a girl,” I said coldly, “I am a shaman. Your shaman, if you and Stack agree. And no, I do not mind having to drag along two boys.” I mean, what does he think’s going to happen? In a year or so, perhaps, when they’re braves (braves! Huh!) and I’m a woman. But even then, they’ll be braves and I’ll be a shaman. No problem.

Anyway, Stack did agree – I never expected anything else. So two days later, both Hawk and Stack ‘happened’ to go out hunting, and I went out into the woods carrying my full shaman kit. I imagine somebody noticed and wondered, but no one asks a shaman what she is doing – except her mother, and mine never asked anything as long as there was mead to hand.

We met at dawn, in Two Oaks Glade. Hawk was waiting for me, neat and tidy, skin oiled, spear in hand; Stack was late, hadn’t even got round to putting his loincloth on, and was wiping his mouth as he came. Of course.

Hawk struck a chieftainly pose. “Very well, Stack, Smo–”

“Seer-of-hidden-things,” I interrupted. “I am Seer.”

“But surely your mother –”

“My mother is shaman to the Longwood Tribe, and so to them she is Seer-of-hidden-things,” I declared. “I am shaman to this tribe, as you are chief, and so to this tribe I am Seer-of-hidden-things.”

“To this – tribe – yes, I suppose we are a tribe. I see.”

An idea planted, and a little more control gained. I felt quite pleased with myself.

Hawk struck his pose again.

“Very well, Seer, Stack. Now we all know why we’re here and what we’re doing, so –”

“I don’t,” said Stack.

Well, it wasn’t fair to expect anything else, was it. I’d only told him twice already.

“We’re going to find the Power Hills,” I sighed. “You’ve heard of the Power Hills?”

“No,” said Stack.

Even Hawk winced at that. I gritted my teeth and put on my declaiming voice.

“The Power Hills are two hills, to the eastward, in each of which a great power is buried – no,” I said before Stack could interrupt, “I don’t know what kind of power or how it is to be used. Such matters will be revealed to us at the proper time.”

“But we need all the power we can get,” said Hawk. “Our Tribe’s getting weaker and weaker, especially eastwards. We haven’t even been able to hold the Valley Tribe for the last three or four years – let alone get back what they’ve taken.”

“So we’re going to bring the power back from the Power Hills and sort things out,” I finished. “OK, now?”

Stack shrugged. He’s good at shrugging; he puts in lots of practice.

“Anyway,” said Hawk, “we need to plan our route as far as we are able. We are headed eastwards – that’s right, isn’t it, Seer?”

“Yes.” I struck a pose of my own and shook a rattle. “Eastwards, across a great river, two hills are set. So the Spirits have declared.”

Hawk nodded. “But we need to avoid the Valley Tribe. We’re too few to be sure of winning a fight, and even if we won they could easily wound us enough to stop us going on.”

Stack looked unhappy at this, and I wasn’t surprised; Stack has always been too big – especially in width – to be worried about a fight. The exact opposite of Hawk, in fact. He even has black hair where Hawk’s is yellow.

For once, though, I agreed with Hawk’s caution – cowardice, his father would have said, but there you are – so I thought I’d better back him up a bit.

“Your words are wise,” I said, lifting my hand in a formal blessing and looking up into his face. “You are our chief – lead us.”

“Ah.” Hawk shrank slightly, and looked around – as if he didn’t know the place blindfold. His eyes went to each of the two oaks, then around the ash and pines and spruce that filled in the rest of the view, and then down to the shrivelled nettles and fireweed and rottenstone that covered the ground. His foot kicked at some stunted heather. “Er – when you say great river, there is the great river running through the Valley Tribe’s land.”

“Much bigger,” I asserted. “Big enough for a sandbank actually in it.”

“It gets bigger as it flows south, and I believe it used to have a sandbank in it down there. When it was our river.”

“Much bigger,” I repeated. “And east, not south.”

“So we’ll need to cross it, and that will be easier northwards, then. But we must avoid the Valley scum.”

“Northeast, then,” I declared. “Northeast, and keep high. Then we’ll avoid everyone.”

Hawk nodded, and Stack looked sulky. No surprises there, then.

We set off. More or less.

Not ten minutes after we'd climbed into the pines and spruce, it's “Look! Pigeon!” followed by “Just hold these, would you!” and I get two packs shoved into my arms as my two brave hunters vanish into the trees. And half an hour - half an hour! - later, they reappear without even a feather! I was not pleased, and said so.

“But we'll need to hunt,” said Hawk in a tone so reasonable that I wanted to hit him.

“Not much game this high up,” added Stack, equally reasonably.

“So we're going to have to take every chance we get,” said Hawk. “And it was your choice. You wanted to avoid people, and the reason this way avoids people is that there's nothing to hunt.”

I gritted my teeth. “But we've got some dried stuff with us.”

“Strictly for emergencies – unless you like chewing tent-ropes.” Hawk laughed, and Stack laughed with him. I didn't.

But I wasn't getting anywhere, so I shrugged and left them to it. Consequently they spent most of the day hunting squirrels and pigeons, instead of moving forwards, while I spent most of the day dozing in the sun. No, I wasn't going to help: firstly, hunting was their job, not mine, secondly, the spruce branches were scratchy and they had loincloths to protect them, which was more than I had, and thirdly - why should I!

Yes, I was still angry. How were we ever going to find the Power Hills if we moved at that rate?

I did finally drag them on a little bit, and so we camped under the topmost peak of Rockline Hill, in one of the little folds just to the northwest. The trees were thin and draughty, and what little dry ground there was had knobbly roots in all the wrong places, but there was water to drink and our fire was hidden from casual view.

After the huge meal of two squirrels and a pigeon which was all my great hunters had caught after all that effort, I danced the boundary of our little camp three times, paused, faced east, and shook one of my rattles.

“The camp should be safe from evil spirits,” I declared, “but I wish to be sure. This is the third night since the Sunfall Feast when the Spirits spoke, and the first night of our journey. There are ceremonies I must perform if we are to travel safe from evil. Sleep quiet, but be watchful. I shall return before dawn.”

And before either of them could ask awkward questions, I turned and marched off northwards – until I was out of sight; then I turned southeast, down into the Valley.

There’s a flat place deep against the mountain that’s holy to the Valley tribe. I found their shaman there.

“Hi,” I whispered.

She glanced round. “Oh, it’s you, pet. It’s all right; there isn’t anyone, now. Sit yourself down and have yourself some mead. It’s five days old – just perfect.”

“Thanks.” I sat down by the fire and took a good swig at the skin. “How’s things, Lady?”

“Not too bad, pet. A couple of braves have had a little bit of a reminder about respect for shamans, but otherwise no problems. And how’s your dear mother getting along?”

I frowned. “Oh, fine. Just fine.” I picked up the meadskin and hit it on the ground, gritting my teeth. “Just. Fine.”

She looked at the meadskin and nodded. “Well now, I can’t say I’m that surprised. Your dear mother always was fond of a little drink. And yourself, pet?”

“I’m fine as well, thank you. But I thought I might have a go for the Power Hills.”

She frowned, and hesitated. “On your own, pet? You’ve no chance.”

“No, no. Got two strong boys with me – Hawk and Stack.”

She nodded. “Well, well, I still don’t think you’ve very much of a chance, pet. But I suppose your dear mother wants you out of her way?”

Her voice had an edge to it that I didn’t understand, but I decided she was making a joke and laughed. “It was my idea, not hers, Lady.”

She laughed too. “Well now, I don’t suppose she’s that sorry! But anyway, pet, have you got far on this little quest of yours yet?”

“We’ve just started,” I said. “We’re up on Rockline, and we’ll be moving northeast tomorrow, I expect.” At the same snail's pace, probably.

She looked away. “And you’d like safe passage till you’re out of Valley reach, pet. Pity. The Valley could do with a bit of fun, and I’d’ve guessed the Longwoods could as well, the way things are.”

“Why? My mother says the Longwoods are reasonably in hand at the moment. That’s why I’m chancing the trip.”

“The Valleys are a little bit restless – they’ve been whingeing about the Travelling Folk, and how much they take for the spearheads we get. And there’s other things as well.” She paused, fiddling with a salve pot. “But it’s not serious, they’re just a bit bored. We just need a bit of excitement of some sort with your lot; but whatever it is, pet, we need it soon. A tribe without an enemy is a tribe without a chief.”

I nodded – but I was surprised; I hadn’t realised things were so far gone with her Tribe.

“We could do with your lot catching a Valley brave or two, tell your dear mother,” she went on, “but if that can’t be managed, ours could catch a couple of yours instead. If there just happened to be a couple of hunters wandering loose around the place – say around Rockline Hill.”

I assumed she was joking, and pretended astonishment. “Surely that’s not a threat? Between shamans?”

She looked shocked. “Oh please, tell your dear mother I wouldn’t dream of threatening another shaman!”

Well, that was a nasty little putdown: as far as she was concerned, I was not a shaman. And I’d thought we were friends.

She carried on, innocent as honey. “But if the Tribe is a little out of hand, I can’t be sure that accidents won’t happen, pet.”

“No,” I said, gritting my teeth, “of course you can’t. So what do you want?”

So of course I had to go all the way back to Longwood Camp to tell them I’d had a vision that some Valley braves were planning a raid and this was how the Spirits said it could be intercepted. Etc., etc., etc. It was a bit crude by my standards, but we needed that safe conduct through Valley land.

Fortunately, my mother didn’t interfere, even though for once she was sober enough for me to pass on the Valley shaman’s message. Made a change. After all, that was the reason I’d set up this little expedition: I bring power back for the Tribe and if I play it right it’ll be enough to persuade my mother to retire completely at last and leave me properly in charge – as I should be. Or at least, she can’t be. You can’t see hidden things through the bottom of a meadskin.

And when I did my little speech, I could see she’d been wrong about this too, and the Valley shaman was right; it was time we had an incident. After all, nothing serious would happen: we’d capture a couple of the Valley braves alive, torture them till we got bored, then kill one slowly and send the other one (minus most of his body parts) to tell the Valley what happened. Then in half a year’s time we’d arrange an incident the other way round.

It kept everyone on their toes, got rid of some surplus population, and gave each tribe an enemy. And a tribe without an enemy is a tribe without a chief.

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Bio: Just a retired mathematician who likes writing stories about the beautiful part of the world he lives in.

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