Next morning we were standing at the bottom of a grassy slope, looking at a wall of reeds taller than we were. Mist flowed over our heads, and soaked in among the reeds. Our hosts had walked us here and left us without a word – and with empty bellies; their chief’s assertion that we could eat and sleep was taken very literally.
The flies were a nuisance, but not as bad as they had been. I don’t think they liked the mist.
Hawk sighed. “Any ideas?” he whispered. “Stack? Seer?”
Stack put a finger to his lips. I gestured right, and mimed tiptoeing.
We tiptoed along the edge of the reeds, and even there we were often in the mud above our ankles. After just a few minutes we could see the mud widening out, the bank becoming less and less well defined. Hawk stopped again, and waved us back.
So ten minutes after we got to the marsh, we were in exactly the same place, but with muddier legs and more fly bites. Wow.
Hawk turned to Stack. “I don’t believe we’re going to get anywhere like this. I want to know what it’s like through the reeds. I’m going to have to make a noise, so we live with it.” He started dumping his gear on the grass. “You and Seer stay here for the moment, and see if I disturb anything.” He was empty-handed and naked now; he picked up his spear, waved, and strode into the reeds. They closed behind him.
Stack sat down against the last tree; I sat in a corner of the slope in the breeze, hugging my knees. We waited. There were no sounds, no movements. Nothing. We waited.
There were some particularly nasty flies – if that’s what they were; they looked more like a giant gnat – that whined as they attacked. It made it worse, knowing they were coming for you but unable to spot the bastards till they landed. By which time it was usually too late.
After nearly an hour a brown, long-legged bird stepped out of the reeds, apparently saw us, and stepped back in again. Only a few seconds later we heard splashing, then a pause, and then Hawk came out of the reeds, mud to his armpits.
“The reeds are thickest at the shore,” he said, “and as the water gets deeper the reeds get thinner. There’s no one about, though, and nothing much to hunt either – no animals of any sort.” He tossed a mud-plastered lump onto the grass. “I did manage to get a bittern.”
“What’s a bittern?” asked Stack.
A good question. I also looked up at Hawk, as if expecting enlightenment. He blushed.
“It’s one of these.” He pointed at the mudlump – though if you looked carefully you could see some mud-coloured feathers and a pair of mud-coloured legs. “They’re not bad eating. A bit fishy.”
“Of course,” I said innocently. “I remember the word, now. The Valley Tribe catch them, don’t they. Of course, I’ve never eaten one – the Valley Tribe don’t exactly trade with us that much.” This was a barefaced lie. I had eaten bittern with the Valley shaman (that twofaced lying toad…) and I’d liked it. A bit fishy, but that just gave it some spice. However.
“So you have dealings with the Valley Tribe behind our backs?” asked Stack, as if it was the most innocent question in the world. “You know their words, and you eat their food. Interesting.”
I nodded. “His father must trust him a lot to let him act like that. I must remember to talk to him about it when we get back.”
Hawk’s face didn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether it wanted to blush or go pale.
“It’s not like that!” he shouted. “It’s just that – when you’re out hunting – you come across a few things – like birds and things – I mean…” He paused. “I don’t have dealings with the Valley Tribe.”
“You don’t?” My eyebrows were higher than my headstrap.
“Perhaps not with the whole Tribe, just with a couple of his friends,” suggested Stack.
“No!” Poor Hawk shouted the word at us. “By the Spirits, I don’t have dealings with the Valley Tribe, I don’t have friends in the Valley Tribe, I swear it!” He turned away, and began plucking the bittern savagely.
Stack and I looked at each other behind his back. Our faces said the same thing – Liar! And he’d sworn by the Spirits. I couldn’t let it pass in the long run, but this was not the time.
The rest of the day was one complete wipeout. Hawk and Stack both went out – separately – searching the marsh, and found nothing. I wasn’t going into that mudbath; that’s hunter’s work, not shaman’s. I sat in the sun and lazed – that is, I invoked the Spirits continuously on our behalf – until I felt hungry, and then I found some berries and ate them all. Why not? They were the hunters. It was their job to find food for all of us.
Unfortunately they didn’t find anything bigger than a beetle – or at least, they didn’t kill anything bigger than a beetle. The local ducks appeared to have miraculous powers of escape, according to the stories my skilful hunters told when they came back. Of course I believed them. I told them that I had been trying to get the Spirits to aid us, but I had not been able to reach them, that they seemed angry. Hawk gulped when I said this, which confirmed my suspicions.
Since we had no food, the evening was a long time passing. Stack and Hawk were not exactly not talking to each other, but every word seemed to have splinters along its edge. I just lay back in peace and wished it could last for the whole trip.
As the sun set the flies and gnats and all the other wildlife came to bother us. I had gathered some wood for a fire, through boredom rather than selflessness, and its smoke helped keep some files off. And following Stack’s advice I plastered all exposed surfaces with mud. It helped too. A bit. But when those two curled up in a heap of bracken I was itching too much to sleep, so I got out some of my paraphernalia and began a vigil, twenty paces or so up the hill; out of the main fly zone, but near enough for the boys to hear my chanting.
I dropped off to sleep after an hour or so, and then woke up some time after midnight. I was itching worse than ever, I had a crick in my neck, I was cold, and I was in a filthy temper. I stood up, shook myself, and walked down to the others.
“Stack!” I hissed, touching his cheek with a fingertip. “Stack!”
He rolled over. “Uhh?”
“Stack!” I hissed again. “Wake up! Quietly!” He didn’t seem to be listening, so I shook his shoulder. “Don’t wake Hawk!”
He turned right over, and struggled to sit up. “What’s the matter?”
“The Spirits have spoken to me.” I held his eyes with mine. “They are angry because Hawk swore by them when he was lying.”
“He was lying, then?” Stack’s smirk almost met behind his neck.
“Definitely. And the Spirits are demanding recompense.”
“What? They want his life?” Stack was genuinely appalled, I thought, which was reassuring. Whether he was appalled at the idea of killing a companion or appalled at the idea of being out in the middle of nowhere with just a shaman for company I couldn’t tell, but either would do me.
“No, not his life. But the strongest Spirit hereabouts is the Lady of the Flies. She is demanding that he be given to her until he confesses.”
“And when he does?” Stack’s eyes were like saucers.
“Then I must go back to Her and ask her will – if I can understand Her.”
“If you – what do you mean?”
“They speak strangely here. The Mistwater Tribe did – remember? Well, She is even harder to follow – all buzzes and whines. But he must be exposed as food for Her servants, to the thumbnail, and when he admits his guilt I must go back to speak to Her, to learn how he can purge his guilt.”
Stack seemed to have even more trouble than normal thinking at that time in the morning. But eventually he spoke. “To the thumbnail? What does that mean?”
Actually, I didn’t know; it had just sounded good. “I think it means that not even a thumbnail sized patch of skin must be covered or protected,” I answered. “But it might mean that even the extremes of his body must be available. She is not a spirit you ask unnecessary questions of.”
Stack was breathing rather hard. “So he will have to be hung up – we can’t just peg him out on the ground.” He looked over to where Hawk was still blissfully asleep, and began digging into his pack, picked out a couple of thongs, tied a slipknot in one, and tiptoed over to Hawk.
Ten minutes later, Hawk was spread-eagled naked in the air, his wrists tied well apart to a branch above his head, his ankles spread with a strong stick – unsharpened – tied between them, the stick wedged across a couple of rocks so that he could take the weight off his arms.
That was bad enough, but you wouldn’t believe what Stack wanted to do. I had to go into a full-scale trance to keep Stack in control. The only good point was that I hoped Hawk knew Stack was being unnecessarily vicious to him, and I was trying to stop it.
“He must hang there until the sun is fully up,” I declared. “He must not now be touched or disturbed in any way – in any way – until then. Wake me before you do anything – anything at all. Do you understand?”
Stack was staring at Hawk, mouth open and close to drooling. He waved at me as if to brush me aside – and suddenly I remembered his skill with the three we caught on Rockline; and also a year or so back seeing him watch a Valley captive being tortured, and enjoying the sight very obviously.
“Unless you want the Lady of the Flies to demand you as food as well.”
That got through. Stack turned to me, his mouth still hanging slack. “Might she?”
“If She thinks you’ve disobeyed Her, or overstepped Her marks – whatever they are – or are using Her for your own benefit… She is not a Spirit to cross, believe me.”
I turned away, burrowed into the bracken heap, and slept.