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We walked the last bit nice and slowly, so they had plenty of time to set up a reception. It was almost dark when we arrived, and the ring of fires had been lit around the dancing-floor, making the chief’s gold collar gleam and glitter under his three chins. We walked into the ring, stopped and bowed. Then Hawk walked in front, holding the arrow high in the air with both hands. He looked quite good – really chiefly.

We paused in front of the chief’s chair. Hawk bowed, still holding the arrow.

“I, Hawk-on-high-bough son of Rope-tight-woven, leader of this band, son of Rope-tight-woven son of Oak-stands-alone, chief of the Longwood Tribe, greet you, mighty chief, Strong-deer-hide son of High-beech-tree, chief of the Mistwater Tribe. Here at my shoulder are Stack-of-strong-timber son of Lifts-rock, and Seer-of-hidden-things. I bear with me the token that you appointed for my return, great and mighty chief Strong-deer-hide son of High-beech-tree, chief of the Mistwater Tribe, and lay the token at your feet.”

He bowed again, and this time lowered his hands. He laid the arrow on the ground and stood up straight.

“It has been thrown at us in war,” he went on. “It is the proof you so wisely demanded that the Pools Tribe regards the Longwood Tribe as enemies. So it is seen that your enemies are our enemies, great chief, and your wisdom and depth of vision are made manifest even to such as us.”

The chief signalled to one of his braves to pick the arrow up for him. He turned it end to end, and finally stared at the tip.

“Yes, indeed; this is of the Pools Tribe. Is there anything left undone by these our guests? Are the Spirits content?”

The Mistwater shaman danced out, and suddenly froze. The light of the torches flickered all over her greased body and shining limbs. We all held our breath. Then she spoke.

“They are content,” she wailed, in a whisper that could be heard throughout the camp. “They are content. They are content.”

What I tell you three times is true, so they say.

“Let us rejoice in the wisdom of our chief, and the vision of the Spirits, and the faithfulness of these visitors!” she screeched softly, and vanished again behind the chief’s chair.

The chief stood up, threw the arrow into the middle of the floor so that its point stuck deep into the earth, and looked around the camp. “Are the Tribe content?” he shouted.

Everyone rattled or shook spear, shield or anything to hand. I took this as a Yes, and so apparently did the chief.

Hawk strode forward and picked up the arrow.

“And let this be the token for any of our Longwood Tribe that they are welcome here, and let this be the token for any of this Mistwater Tribe that they are welcome among us!” he shouted. The Tribe shouted back – but I was watching the chief.

I had understood him to be asking for a new arrow for every visit – a pretty tight restriction on inter-tribe contacts. Now Hawk was suggesting a free-for-all – and to judge by his face, he knew what he was doing. Would he get it?

“A wise son of a wise father!” the chief repeated. “Your father and I must meet – and meet soon. May it be a glorious meeting of friends and a mark of a new friendship between our tribes!”

Neither yes nor no; better than Hawk deserved. And I wondered what our beloved chief would make of his despised son Hawk negotiating on his behalf. Hawk seemed to be putting a brave face on it, but I hope the same thought was in his mind.

My mind was chewing over a quite different thought, as it had been most of the day: what had I got wrong? Surely I had just put Hawk through a humiliating and painful punishment; surely he should be feeling humble, and Stack should be feeling smug? Yet here was Hawk acting even more arrogantly and Stack practically snarling like a dog with his tail between his legs. Somewhere I’d dropped a real treetrunk of a mistake – but I couldn’t see what. Still, it could have been worse – at least they weren’t being slushy.

Anyway, we were now officially guests of the Mistwater Tribe. It meant we got food and drink.

Stack was first at the food, of course. But even he was looking round between mouthfuls.

“It’s a big tribe,” he mumbled, spraying deer fat over us both.

Hawk nodded, swallowing. “And so many old people!”

I wondered at that, too. Our tribe is small, because we don’t hold that much land any more; so the shaman makes sure the numbers of babies who live is kept in control. And old people are just a drain on resources – we can’t afford to carry passengers; so a shaman makes sure that no one grows old – except the chief and the shaman, of course.

It may seem heartless, but it is simple necessity. Remember, it’s not the individual that matters, but the tribe. And really, it’s the human race as a whole that truly matters in the long run, not the tribe, not the individual.

Except, of course, when I’m the individual.

But here, there were several wrinkled faces around the fire, and several mops of grey hair. Was the shaman not doing her job? Or was there some other reason – had they found a use for these people?

Time for a courtesy visit to the shaman – especially as she might invite me to sleep in her tent.

“So you are Seer-of-hidden-things?” she said. “Your mother is dead, then? I am sorry.” Her thin face looked hollow without the mask; her dark hair picked up the dark circles round her eyes.

“No, no,” I replied. “But while I’m with the expedition I am its Seer, so I am Seer-of-hidden-things for now, Lady.”

“Oh, call me Speaker.” She had only just got in herself; she took off her straps, and wiped the grease and dust off herself with a fawnskin. “After all, I first met you when your grandmother was alive – but you will not remember.”

“You remember Nan – I mean, my grandmother?”

She laughed. “Oh yes. Not a lady it is easy to forget!” She paused. “You must have been, what, six when she died?”

“Six. Yes.” I had to control my voice. Her death still hurt a little, even after so long, but the moment passed. “No, my grandmother’s not someone you forget.”

“But I have seen you since she died. You last came to visit a few years ago, did you not, with your mother, when I became Speaker-for-the-spirits.” She paused. “Expedition, did you call it? They are hardly able to look at each other without growling.”

“Yes,” I smiled. “They’re coming along pretty well.”

She waved me towards a bench, and sat down herself on a stool. “You have managed to split them up so that you can control them better?” she said, leaning back against a ring pole and wriggling her shoulders into comfort.

“Not split them up completely,” I answered hastily, “but yes, they play off against each other quite easily, now.” No, I know it wasn’t strictly true at the moment, but I didn’t want her to think me a total fool, and it had been true for most of the trip.

She nodded as if she approved, and yet… Well, perhaps I was imagining things, I told myself.

“And that was how the Spirits told you to play it, I suppose,” she went on, and looked up at me.

“If anyone asks,” I smiled. “I have had the Spirits’ approval at every stage!” I waved my hand airily. “Very convenient.”

“Of course.” Her voice was smiling, and so was her face; but she didn’t seem to be. “And you have had the Spirits’ help in other ways? I did hear you had a little trouble on the way, up on Rockline.”

How did she know that? One way leapt to the mind.

“You’ve heard from the Valley shaman, then?” I asked casually. “Friend of yours?”

“Not of yours, I should think!” She looked at me. “Dropped you right in, I gather. I can not say that I am surprised.”

“She’s done it to you, has she?” I felt a little relieved at the idea I wasn’t the only one she’d fooled.

But the Mistwater shaman just shrugged. “No, not quite, but I have never trusted her all the way. She was too close with your mother, I thought. Especially when they were talking about who would take over from your mother. I thought that she was pushing too hard.”

It was as if I’d been clubbed. “But – but I’m her daughter! Of course I’ll take over – I mean, what are you talking about? It’s not true! It’s not! It’s not! You’re lying! It’s not true!”

She stood up, walked over to her quern and threw some knitbone leaves onto it. Then she picked up a pestle and began grinding – or rather, crushing – the leaves down. Meanwhile I was gibbering.

Eventually she must have decided I’d waited long enough. “Daughters do not have to follow their mothers. After all, a shaman might not have a daughter. Or the daughter might not want the job.” She tested the paste with a finger, added a smear of fat, and then carried on grinding. “Or a shaman might decide that her daughter is not up to it. Any of these things. Then she can adopt a substitute. Let us say, the daughter of a nearby shaman. One who is truly well trained, with a wide knowledge of herbs, deeply spiritual of course –” her voice paused briefly – “skilled at brewing mead, and above all, polite and well-behaved.”

“Butterwort-leaves!” I exclaimed. “You mean Butterwort-leaves! But – but she’s a total doormat!”

“Precisely! She will do whatever her mother – whatever the Valley shaman tells her. The perfect shaman for the Longwood Tribe.” She examined the paste again, sucked her teeth, was apparently satisfied – though I wouldn’t’ve been – and then scraped it off the stone and filled a little pot, while I tried to get my brain working.

She looked up at me, right in the eye. “But she does brew good mead – far better than you. Your mother holds that you deliberately water it.”

“I know, but she thinks that of everyone. Or else that they steal it.” I was beginning to think again. “Look, Speaker, if Butter takes over, it’s the end of the Longwood Tribe. She’ll poison the lot in one go. And if my mother declares Butter as her heir, the Valley shaman will see that Butter takes over soon.”

“And if you are not there, Butter will be your mother’s heir, whether she declare it or not.” She scratched a mark onto the jar, and called out. A girl stepped very softly out from the shadows beyond the fire; a pale, skinny girl, a shade younger than me, shy and soft at first sight but with an air of hidden strength. “You have not met Birch, have you! Seer-of-hidden-things, may I bring to you Birch-twigs, my second daughter. Birch-twigs, offer your respect to Seer-of-hidden-things, first daughter of the shaman of the Longwood Tribe.” We touched palms, Birch and I, and then the girl took the little pot and left the tent.

“Your second daughter?” I asked. “The Spirits have been kind to you?”

“Oh, yes. I have three daughters living. The other two are out gathering some things for me. They should be back soon. If you would care to share our tent tonight, Seer-of-hidden-things, you will meet them.”

“Your generosity honours me, Speaker-for-the-Spirits” I answered. The formality gave me a chance to keep thinking. “So any of three daughters may be chosen to follow you! The Spirits indeed do you honour.” And it seems a little excessive, surely? All hell will break loose when it comes to the point.

She smiled – my thought must have shown in my face. “Not as much honour as may seem. My eldest – she is a woman, now – her heart has never been in the Stones. I and our chief, we have been talking, and we think she will walk to his third son’s tent. And my youngest is only seven. She will be good, though. Already she is better at finding and identifying herbs than either of her sisters, but I do not hold her to beat Birch here at preparation and brewing.”

Birch was indeed here – I’d never heard her come back. My respect for the girl went up another notch. And it wasn’t difficult to work out what her mother was trying to sell me. But I needed time to think.

“How did your tribe take back the Pools and the Pool Stream?” I asked. Rather a sharp change of subject, but it was the best I could manage.

“We did not plan to. But as we pushed the Pools Tribe – what are left of them – deeper into the marsh and away from our fishers, so we discovered that we held the causeway at the head of the stream – where you crossed three days ago.” Was it only three days! “Once we held that, we of necessity held the stream banks on your side, and so the Valley Tribe held no safe crossing of the stream above Stoatsback, and therefore no reason to come this far.” She began grinding down some more knitbone – just as badly as the first lot. I couldn’t stand it any more.

“Here, let me do that,” I said, and took the pestle from her.

“Oh, thank you.” She straightened her back, and then began picking over a basketful of dried rose hips. “Yes, it never came to a big fight, but after a few little incidents the Spirits led the shamans to meet, the chiefs exchanged messengers, and now the Valley Tribe never come past the Pitlands, while we do not cross the Pool Stream except at the Causeway. And I believe your tribe could now claim all the land on your side between the Endstone and Stoatsback, in other words practically the whole of the Pitlands, so the Valley really has had a bloody nose.”

“I don’t know,” I mused, grinding the individual leaves and watching them merge together and fade into the paste. “It’s all useless land. I don’t suppose one hunter a year would bother to visit.”

She looked up. “Really? Then they should. There is a lot more there than meets the eye.” She went on with her berries. “Of course, mostly open-ground game – rabbits, hare, that sort of thing – and your tribe works happier in trees.”

“Yes, that’s true.” The paste was already far finer than her first lot. I picked out the mat of fibres and wrung the paste out of them and back into the mortar. “Do you need any more knitbone?”

“Are you finished already?” She leant across me and tested the paste. “That is – just excellent. No, but – would you mind doing some coltsfoot and lungwort, please?”

“Coltsfoot root or leaves?” I reached for the baskets.

She looked me straight in the eye. “What would you use?”

“Root, every time. And if it’s for a stubborn cough, which it likely is, I would add a little squill.”

She tossed a squill bulb to me, and I began to work.

“Your mother was right about your skills, anyway.” So I’d passed that test – not that I’d doubted it. “Perhaps I should get you to teach my daughters.” She tidied the berries away and began on the evening meal. And I tried to do some thinking; and failed. Failed miserably, as they say. I never really knew what that meant till then.

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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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