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Hawk’s wounds didn’t seem to keep him awake that night. Perhaps being stuffed to the eyebrows with fresh boar meat is good for wounds – though I doubt it.

“Right,” he said after breakfast, all businesslike. “We need to sort out what we’ve got and what we don’t need.”

The boys each had: one hunter’s loincloth (Hawk’s was fawnskin, Stack’s was hare); one sling; one spear; one pack containing dried meat, salves (of my making – therefore top quality), spare thongs for the spearheads, a skinning knife, and a scraper; a firepot tied underneath the pack; a dozen or so slingstones in an outside fold; one deerskin cloak, double layered, rolled and strapped on top. Hawk also had a dagger. Stack also had a club, its head weighted with a stone.

I had: a few leather straps tied round me for sticking feathers in; my pouch tucked into my waist strap; one firepot tied underneath my pack; one deerskin cloak, also double layered but getting a little short for me, rolled and strapped above my pack; and my pack itself. I’m not telling you what was in that – that’s shaman business, not yours.

We had acquired recently: a fresh boar hide; some boar tusks; some cooked boar meat; three more cloaks, two made (badly) of deerskin and one a patchwork of hides – hare and squirrel mostly; three more packs, also badly made, contents more or less as above, except the salves weren’t half as good as mine; three slings, one with a snapped thong; and three spears.

Two of the spears were good – top quality flint, very sharp, beautifully shaped, better than anything in our tribe. If they came from the Travelling Folk they must have cost a manheight of skins at least, and good deerskins at that. Hawk and Stack took one each, and untied the flints from the other spears – you can cut new shafts anywhere, but spearheads are serious.

The cloaks, on the other hand, were rubbish – but then, everyone knows our women are far better at skinwork than the Valley women. We dumped them.

The boarskin was a pity, but it was very heavy and we had no easy way of curing it. We dumped that too, but we kept the tusks as a trophy.

The food and salves were just about worth keeping; we divided them between us.

That left one small item.

“What is it?” asked Hawk.

“It’s an amulet of guard,” I answered. “Don’t touch it – it has power.” I shook a rattle over it and muttered a bit.

“How much power?”

“Oh, very little, just enough to protect against the weakest of Spirits,” I answered confidently. “But we should not risk wasting what power it has.” I looked around, and shook the rattle in the four directions and the five directions. “There will be a full moon tomorrow night – that will be the proper time for me to examine it. Till then –” I slipped it into a pouch – “I shall keep it safe. It won’t harm me, and under my protection it will not harm you.”

Hawk nodded, as if he understood every word.

That morning was worse than ever. I just could not keep their minds on the journey. One would see a squirrel, or a couple of crows, and out would come the sling and bang would go an hour. Or they’d get tired – tired! Hunters getting tired! – and we’d sit down for a rest at a spring. I’d guess that we did an hour’s worth of actual travelling that morning, maybe less. And we’re sitting down for a bite of boar meat and crushed rowan berries and Stack says, “Are we nearly there yet?”

“No,” I said. “We’re not. We’ve hardly started. We’re nowhere remotely near the Power Hills. And the way you two travel, we’ll never get there.”

Stack and Hawk looked at each other, and made ‘understanding’ faces. I think Hawk murmured, “Girls!” I could have strangled them.

Then Stack stood up, and looked out. “Do we have to cross the Grey Bog?”

We could see it below us, beyond the shadow of the hill, sombre in the light. Huge patches of rottenstone daubed the slope below us, the dull red fading into the purple of heather and dead weeds, and more rottenstone blotches reddened the eastern fringe of the Bog, to our right; but over the wide steaming plain between even the sun was drained of colour.

Hawk shuddered.

“I hope not,” he said. “But Seer says eastwards, and that’s north.” He looked at me.

Oh so it’s Seer now, is it, not just Girl? Never mind, they’ll learn soon. “Yes,” I answered. “Eastward.”

“But if we go eastwards from here, we’re going back into the top end of the Valley Tribe’s lands.”

“They don’t seem to go there much,” said Stack. “It’s mostly a big patch of rottenstone. Useless hunting, treacherous under foot.”

“They say there’s pits there you can fall into and never get out of, pits the size of a tent.” Hawk paused. “It’s not that I’m frightened of the Valley Tribe, or of the pits, but it would be slow going.”

“Yes. Very slow. We’d be losing a lot of time.”

This from two boys who’d been dragging their feet every step of the way! I could hardly keep a straight face. Not frightened! Huh!

“If I remember right,” I murmured, “there is a way north, but not across the Grey Bog - further to the east. Maybe we could take it, then go east and then south, till we’re back on the line.”

Hawk and Stack looked at each other.

“South once we’re past the Valley Tribe. That might work.” Hawk almost looked as if he believed himself.

Stack looked doubtful, but he nodded.

But Hawk was away in his own thoughts. “I’ve done it twice, so I should be able to find it again. There’s a bowl in the hills – biggish, with a very boggy patch in the middle that floods in winter. Then –”

“Let’s just do it,” I said.

The woods were cold and silent that afternoon. Rain dripped down to us through dark branches. We made steady enough progress in difficult land. The trees were thick pines and spruce, hard to push through, harder to navigate. There were few paths. We found the bowl in the hills; it was flooded already, but it felt depressing in the autumn rain, and even Stack didn’t try to bring down a duck. Then we got lost a couple of times, but eventually we were working steeply downhill, northwards, towards the wet valley. Pines changed to oaks, and pushing through spiky branches became clambering under a dark roof, shaking down the yellowed leaves whenever we stumbled against a tree trunk.

Finally the ground levelled out, and began to squelch underfoot. A path appeared, and took us to the Endstone.

Stack almost touched it, but he snatched his hand away at the last moment. “Why is it called the Endstone?”

Everyone looked at me, of course. Lore is always a matter for the Shaman or for the Singer, and I am the Shaman. Whatever that old pegbag in the Valley Tribe thinks.

“It marks the end of the Longwood Tribe lands,” I declared. “Before the Valley Tribe pushed in, we held Flat Valley, the Divided Hills, and everything between them from Grey Bog to High Bog. The hills north and east were held by the Mistwater Tribe, but Grey Bog itself was held by the Pools Tribe, and its shores as far as the Endstone; in those days the Endstone marked where our lands ended and theirs began.”

My voice began to singsong.

“Then the Widehills Tribe came down and fought the Longwood Tribe, and took from us Flat Valley, and the Widehills Tribe took the new name of Valley Tribe to spite us. But we held them at the valley’s edge, and they feared to challenge the Mistwater Tribe for the rich forests northwards, so instead they tried to take Grey Bog from the Pools Tribe, and they slaughtered the Pools Tribe, but their ghosts came and cast the Valley Tribe out of the Grey Bog. And since then none live in or dare to claim the Grey Bog as tribal land, neither the Longwood Tribe, nor the Mistwater Tribe, nor the Valley Tribe. All is empty, disputed, forgotten.”

Stack shuddered. “Is the Endstone haunted?” he asked.

How can you haunt a stone? It’s just a piece of scenery. And as for the Endstone, there’s twenty or so just like it I could show you whenever you want. They’re all roughly square, all the same whitish, coarse rock, all with the same mineral vein in the middle of their tops. (The colour of rottenstone, but much harder, and when you scrape at it, it goes grey and a bit shiny.) It’s just the nature of that particular kind of rock.

I danced around it, shaking a couple of rattles and crooning.

“No,” I affirmed, striking a confident pose. “There are no ghosts here. The Endstone is not haunted.”

“Unless it’s by Valley hunters,” drawled Hawk. “They come into the Grey Bog now and then, and sometimes they don’t go out again. But they call it the Elfstone.”

“Why?”

Stack was full of questions all of a sudden, wasn’t he? We’ve had more words out of him in ten minutes than we had all the rest of the trip so far.

I shook a rattle. “They whom we call Elders, they call Elves,” I intoned.

That shut him up at last. Nobody asks questions about the Elders. Except a shaman. A shaman asks lots of questions. Like: How did Hawk know what the Valley Tribe call the Endstone?

I didn’t ask it aloud – but I didn’t forget it.

Near the Endstone there’s a boggy spring that quickly becomes a boggy stream. Thanks to our chief’s wonderful memory and almost miraculous instinct for these things, we followed the stream for half an hour or so down its right bank, got stuck, struggled all the way back to the Endstone, and followed the stream again down its left bank. It was filthy going; sticky mud sometimes well over our ankles, fighting through birch, alder, sallow, osier and even an occasional ash and lime on the rare dry patches. And the flies! We couldn’t stop; as soon as we did we began to sink deeper and the flies began to feed. Even my two strong hunters didn’t want to rest.

After a couple of hours all told, we were on drier ground, looking over a long narrow pool. The slope down was only about fifty paces, but the slope up the other side was much longer, and all open grass as far as we could see in the mist. There was some good forest to the right and left, though.

“We can’t go any further today,” Hawk declared very firmly, and for once I agreed. We’d done very well, compared with past days.

I shook my rattle around a bit, and drew out a camp, in the shelter of three ash trees and a birch thicket. We couldn’t get a fire going at all, and the boar was finished, so we had only dried rations. We chewed cold, smoked meat and then tried to sleep, but the ground was so wet we had to make a thick bed of birch sticks and cover it with one of the cloaks.

While they were stacking the branches, I remembered the amulet. It was a tube of elder wood, only a thumbjoint long and a third of that across. The ends were sealed with beeswax. When I’d picked out the wax I found what I expected.

If you’ve never seen it, Elderskin is quite hard to describe; thin and fragile like birch bark, but rougher and whiter, like the thinnest possible kid leather in texture. I believe it must be the bark of a tree that grows in some distant land – it burns like bark. The Elders are said to have written the markings on it, as we write on kidskin or birchbark, but the symbols are not our symbols. If they are symbols, if it is writing, and if the Elders ever existed.

This one was thicker than most, and marked on both sides. It told me nothing except that some superstitious idiot had cut a bigger piece of Elderskin into several separate slips, and made each slip into an amulet. Big deal. I put this particular slip back in its tube, sealed it again, and hid it among my things.

Then the bed was ready and we curled up together shivering under the other two cloaks, covering our faces with bracken against the flies. Not a good night.

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About the author

Adge

Bio: Just a retired mathematician who likes writing stories about the beautiful part of the world he lives in. Checkout https://ko-fi.com/adge0304 for more stuff!

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