I awoke a little after sunrise, and I was appalled. Hawk was completely covered in flies, gnats and biting insects of every possible kind – every scrap of skin was crawling with insects. You certainly could not have put a thumbnail between them. I’d only expected him to be bothered with a few files and unable to brush them off, like a deer in a clearing; I hadn’t imagined anything this bad.
Stack was still where I’d left him, but in a little snoring heap under a cloak. I kicked him awake, and despite his protestations insisted on untying Hawk. We laid him on a cloak, and threw water over him until the flies were all washed away. His body was swollen and fiery red from head to toe, and he was tossing about. I didn’t like it at all. Stack helped me move him to the water’s edge and bury him in the cold mud, which did seem to help at first; his eyes opened and he muttered some words that seemed to make sense; but his pulse was all over the place, and a couple of times I had to thump his chest to convince myself his heart was still going.
This was awful: the sort of thing you do to a captive enemy, not to one of your own. Still, I wasn’t going to let Stack see how I felt.
“As I said,” I told Stack, “The Lady is not a Spirit to cross. I do wonder if She wants you to take the ordeal as well – you were so anxious to serve her, She may want you as one of Her servants in the Realms.”
Stack turned white.
“Certainly if She takes Hawk,” I went on, trying not to show I was enjoying myself, “She will probably feel She needs a companion for him. She likes Her servants in matched pairs.”
Stack stared down at Hawk, and Hawk stared back at him, Stack’s mouth opened and closed several times. But from then on he was very helpful with Hawk.
Hawk pulled round slowly, and by the afternoon was reasonably coherent and a better colour. I shook a couple of rattles at him.
“So,” I said. “Do you admit you lied? And that you invoked the Spirits to bless a lie?”
Hawk opened his mouth. We waited. Finally, “Yes.”
“You do have dealings with the Valley Tribe behind your father’s back?”
“No, no!” He was struggling to sit up, but I eased him back. The water lapped around his body – and my feet. It was definitely cool enough to do him some good, but I moved my feet to dry land.
“Not with the Tribe!” he went on. “Just with one – with one girl.”
I heard Stack sniggering behind me. I was having trouble myself.
“A girl?” I said, and stared at the very hairless area between his legs. “Aren’t you a bit young for that?”
He looked away. “Oh, it’s not like that. She’s just a friend.”
No, she wasn’t. There was more to it. I just kept silent, meaningfully.
“She – we met by accident once, when I was out hunting duck. She was gathering reeds. We looked up and saw each other, and we both smiled. She asked if I was from the Longwoods, and I said yes, and she asked if I was going to hurt her, and I said no, and it went on from there. We’ve met a few times since, in the same place. We’re just friends.”
I still kept silent, and gestured to Stack to keep quiet, too.
Eventually Hawk cracked wider. “But…”
I raised an eyebrow.
“She is so – I don’t mean she’s sexy, or that I want her to my tent, or any of that, I mean, you’re right, I am too young, but she is…. She is beautiful. No – I don’t quite mean that – she is beauty.”
Oh, don’t make me weep! Has he been trying some of my mother’s mushrooms?
He stared at me. “You must know,” he went on. “You must understand. You’ve walked in the Spirit realm. You must have seen such beauty as we can’t grasp. Surely you understand!”
Well, if I had walked in the Spirit realm, which I haven’t because it doesn’t exist, then I don’t believe it would turn me into a total slushwabbit. I had never heard such sentimental, wishy-washy, glutinous, sick-making flump in my whole life.
I nodded, my face sober. “Yes,” I said, “I understand. But you must have known – you must both have known how dangerous it was.”
“Yes, I suppose we did. We even joked about it. But…”
“But,” I echoed. “Well, let’s leave it there. I must walk in the Spirit realm again, now, myself, and see if they – She – is satisfied.”
I walked away up the hill until I was out of sight and hearing. Then I laughed and laughed and laughed.
Once I was back in control I dug a flint chip out of my pouch and slashed my arm three times – long, shallow cuts that bled nicely. Then I walked back down to the others.
“She is placated,” I reported. “It took some doing, but She is now prepared to let the matter drop.” I slumped down as if exhausted. “And no, Stack, she doesn’t want you so you can stop worrying. Is there any drinkable water?”
Stack stopped staring at my arm and leapt to his feet. Hawk’s eyes followed him, with a look in them I couldn’t work out. Then Stack came back with a drink of spring water, and the moment passed.
“Thank you,” I said. Then I pretended to notice that my arm was dripping blood and dug out some salve. It soon stopped the bleeding – as I say, my salves are the best.
Hawk was getting better by the minute, but he still was obviously unfit for serious work, and anyway it was late. Stack went hunting and brought back two duck – a clear sign the Spirits had relented, I pointed out – and so we ate a reasonable supper. The flies weren’t so bad that night, either, and on the whole we slept well.
Next morning Hawk was back to his normal self – except he was covered in spots and had a big swelling on his left arm – and both the boys were obviously determined to find these flint-beaked birds; but I had been thinking.
“The Spirits want us to move from here,” I declared. “But they did not speak clearly where we are to move to.”
Hawk looked around. “Well, not east – that takes us out of the marshes,” he said. “We go west.”
Stack nodded. I was puzzled: Stack was being almost humble, and Hawk had taken command. Surely after Hawk had been so punished and humiliated yesterday it should have been the other way round?
“But we’ll need to find somewhere out of the wind,” Hawk went on. “It’s much colder today, and I don’t like the clouds.”
Nor did I, and I was cold too; mind you, they were at least wearing loincloths, and their cloaks were longer than mine as well, so what they were complaining about I don’t know. I shook a rattle at my shadow. “Westwards, then,” I declared.
We duly worked westwards, and the further we went the more trees appeared at the edge of the water, and the further away from the water’s edge we had to go to find dry footing. After five hundred paces there was a proper fringe of alders and sallows, and the grass on the hillside was dotted with bramble patches and gorse bushes. Then a stream came down across our path, and reeds filled its mouth, breaking the line of trees. The valley of the stream was deep cut, giving us shelter from weather, but it was easy to walk up to the ridges on either side if the flies were a nuisance.
“Perfect,” declared Hawk. “Shelter and fresh water. We camp.”
Except we didn’t – I did. The other two just dumped their things at my feet, waved, and pushed out through the reeds and out of sight, leaving me to gather bracken and build shelters. Thank you very much, boys.
Stack got back first, with no less than five duck. Tiny ones, mind, not a kind I’d seen before – but very tasty. You’d’ve thought Hawk must have smelt them cooking; he turned up just as I was biting into the first one.
“I’ve found something!” he burst out. “I think it’s a fish trap. Look!”
He lifted this black gungy thing out of the water; as the slime dripped off you could see it was a wicker basket, cone shaped, about twice the length of his arm, and a quarter of that across at the mouth.
“See,” he went on, “the fish swims into this wide bit, and it doesn’t notice because it’s wide, and then the wide bit gets narrower and it can’t turn round.”
He waved it around in the air in front of him, apparently to demonstrate how it worked. There was a thump, and the basket spun from his hand and landed two paces away. All three of us froze for a second, then we flung ourselves into the long grass.
Nothing more happened.
Eventually Hawk crawled over to the trap and picked it up. Then we all crawled up the little valley until we were out of sight of the marsh, and stood up, staring at the trap – and at what had hit it.
A bird is something that has feathers and flies through the air. This had feathers and it flew through the air, but I’m not sure I’d call it a bird. For one thing, it had a flint beak.
“So the Lady has forgiven you,” I said. “I’ve heard of these but I’ve never seen one before.”
“I have,” said Hawk. “The Valley Tribe call them ‘arrows’. I believe you throw them with a piece of bent wood with a string tied across it, but I don’t quite know how. The Valley Tribe don’t use them themselves – they’re said to be pretty useless in thick woods like ours. It’s a tribe the other side of them that use them.”
“This is from your girlfriend again, I suppose?” Stack asked, rather bitterly I thought. I looked at Hawk too, all innocent.
“Maybe!” Hawk was on the defensive at last. “But if you’d paid attention to the Singer you’d’ve heard of them too.” He looked me in the eye. “That’s how you’d heard of them, isn’t it.”
“Oh, they’re part of the general lore that Singers and Shamans both share,” I answered, “and it’s not just the Valley Tribe that call them ‘arrows’. The stick you throw them with is called a ‘bow’. They work like a dart, but they go much further and much harder. And,” I pulled out the arrow and studied its tip, “you can get much more poison on them because the tip is so much bigger.” I scraped a tiny flake of black from the flint, rubbed it between my fingers and smelt it. “Wolfsbane. Of course.” I wiped my fingers very thoroughly on the damp grass.
“Of course.” Hawk looked round. “How far can you throw these things?”
“So the tales say, a hundred paces. To kill.”
“A hundred paces? By all the Spirits! You mean they could hit us from that hill over there?”
“So the stories say.” I put the arrow down – very carefully. Wolfsbane is no joke. “They may be exaggerating, of course, but you saw how hard and deep it went into the fish trap, and the thrower was nowhere to be seen. And it’s no use wrapping your cloak round you,” I looked at Stack who was doing exactly that. “These arrows will go straight through any cloak. So the stories say.”
Hawk jumped to his feet. “We must get away from here, now,” he exclaimed. “We must get this back to the Mistwater chief.”
“Our stuff is all down by the water,” I pointed out. Slightly huffily, I admit. I’d spent all day gathering bracken, pulling down poles and building shelters while they’d been out enjoying themselves, and it had all been a total waste of time.
Apparently this little point had escaped his notice. I pushed my advantage. “Obviously a hunter’s going to have no problem slipping down there unseen and bringing the stuff back up here,” I paused. “A real hunter, that is.” I looked from Hawk to Stack and back again.
They both looked at me with clenched lips, seemed about to say something, and then dropped to the ground and wriggled off into the grass.
Eventually they came back, running crouched over. Stack had my pack and Hawk the rest of my stuff – as well as their own, of course.
“Good,” declared Hawk. “Let’s go.”
“Just a moment, just a moment,” I said. I opened my pack and spent a little time just checking it was all there. The more he fretted the slower I went.
At long last I decided I’d squeezed as much revenge out as I possibly could.
“Let’s go,” I said, and walked off.