I did not sleep well that night. I could not get over what my mother had done – how she’d betrayed me. And I’m her daughter – her only daughter! I kept on trying to think what to do, what my next step should be, and always my mind came back to my mother’s betrayal before I could get to a decision.
In the end, of course, I fell asleep. And when I woke, a new thought was sitting in my head: how did I know? Why should I believe Speaker? Perhaps she is lying, and my mother hadn’t rejected me! But then I remembered how the Valley shaman had treated me, and how that fitted, and then I began to remember other things… And I knew it was true.
So I had a decision to make: either I went back and confronted my mother, and snatched back my position; or I went on with the quest for the Power Hills and… and maybe then went back home. But I couldn’t go back home now, could I? Even if I went back, it wouldn’t be home anymore, not knowing what I knew…
Loneliness fell over me like a skin dropped on a bed. I wept.
When I stopped weeping, I turned over, and reached out to the loneliness, and then inside myself. There was strength there. I took hold of the strength, dried my eyes, stood up, and walked over to the hearth.
When Speaker saw me she reached over to the water jar and scooped out a bowlful for me. I washed the last tearstains off my face and felt human again.
“Bad night, is it?” she said. “Nothing to be ashamed of, Seer my girl. Have some food – you will feel better for a full stomach.”
I nodded; I didn’t quite feel safe talking yet.
Then she put her arm round my shoulder, and I snuggled against her, and had another little cry. Then I did feel better. Mind, I could have done without her seven-year-old running in, shouting “Big Hug!” and launching herself into us from a dizzy height.
“Thank you,” I said, helping Speaker back to her feet; at least it meant I noticed her eyes. “You look tired, too.”
The seven-year-old prodded me in the solar plexus. “Mummy was up all night talking about you to the Spir –”
“Now you run along and find me some stone-pine, there’s my good girl!” Speaker patted the kid out of the tent and turned back to me.
I was keeping an eye on the ashcakes. She prodded a couple, found one that was cooked, tossed it between her hands until it was cool enough to handle, then broke it and offered me half.
I am not a total fool, even after a night like that. I paused, thought…
After all, whoever was lying to me, or whoever was telling the truth, taking Speaker’s offer gave me the most options; it put me in some sort of control. If I just left things, anything could happen – and I’d begun to realise just how far away the Power Hills might be. But I was committed to the journey – and to Hawk. And to Stack as well, of course.
I had to go on, and worrying about what I’d come back to was silly.
…and I took the ashcake half.
“Your generosity honours me, Speaker-for-the Spirits.” I touched the bread to my forehead. “My tent is open to you, Speaker-for-the Spirits, and I offer you my service.” I ate a little of the bread. “Except that this time, I mean it.”
She nodded, and pushed a pot of preserved raspberries towards me. “Because the purity of my intentions shines so clear that you can do no other than trust me.”
I laughed. “Or to put it another way, the journey to the Power Hills has turned out to be far longer than I had expected, and I see now that I should not have left my mother without support. Support which the maid Birch-twigs can well give, if she and you so choose. Lady Speaker-for-the-Spirits, Shaman of the Mistwater Tribe, I ask of your grace to release the maid Birch-twigs to be a support to my Mother, Seer-of-hidden-things, Shaman of the Longwood Tribe, for as long as she is needed.”
“To that I assent, Lady Seer-of-hidden-things, but who believes what is spoken in secret. Let us step outside into the hearing of the whole Tribe.”
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It took nearly two hours, I’d had only three mouthfuls of ashcake, and I still hadn’t had a proper drink.
When at last I got back to breakfast Speaker sat down with me again, and we shared the rest of the ashcakes – those few that her daughters hadn’t scoffed in the meantime.
We aren’t savages; we know what bread is. But it was odd to have so much bread and so little else; in the Longwoods it’s always the other way round – for us, bread is a treat. But then we don’t have so much of the grains and roots you can use for breadmaking – our land doesn’t grow them so well as theirs, I suppose. It’s just the way it is.
And then Speaker went out on her rounds, and I went with her, and Speaker and I talked. And by the time we got back to her tent I felt much better.
And I could almost forgive my mother. No, that’s not right – I could almost imagine possible ways in which I might – just might – one day forgive her.
But I couldn’t forgive the Valley shaman, and I could never forgive the mead.
Anyway, eventually we started talking about important matters.
“So you see, I thought I had humiliated Hawk; but he’s suddenly got confident, and it’s Stack that’s acting all humble – and resentful. I don’t understand.”
Speaker nodded. “Yes, of course. Don’t you see? You’re still thinking of what you meant to happen, not what did. You meant it just to be humiliating, but it was not so; it was intensely painful and terrible, and frightening to see and to imagine. Yes?”
“Yes… I suppose…”
“And Hawk endured it, and lived. Yes?”
“And Stack was frightened of it – so frightened you could threaten him with it and he cooperated. Yes?”
“And now you understand. Hawk knows Stack was frightened of an ordeal that Hawk has come through. And Stack knows Hawk knows. Of course Hawk has gained confidence; of course Stack feels humiliated. And Stack we see can not handle humiliation.”
I picked up a hazelwood scraper, dug out the last of the honey and worked it into the lotion. “There’s no way back from this, is there. I can bring Hawk down, but I can never build Stack up again.”
“Exactly. Only Stack himself can do that – and he has not. That is his real failure.”
“How could he? Offer to take the ordeal himself?”
“And face down his fears. Yes. Or acknowledge a limit, but accept that everyone has limits. Or see that there is a difference between accepting an ordeal, and being forced to undergo an ordeal as Hawk was. Or – well, any of a number of ways.”
“But not sulking like a two-year-old. Yes, I see. So I’ve caused too much damage for him to be able to recover.”
“To see it another way, you have had revealed to you a weakness, a vice in Stack that you had not suspected, and which even he may not have been aware of. It is valuable; you will know now what Stack’s limits are, and you will never again make the mistake of thinking of him as perhaps a chief.”
I was about to say something, then I stopped, thought about it, and started again. “It’s not what he’s done that will stop him ever being Chief. It’s not a punishment. But the vice that has always been in him made him act as he did and also will stop him ever being Chief. You’re right. I’ve gained vital information.”
“And so now you will only build up Hawk as a possible chief. Which is very fortunate.”
I filled the little pot, and looked up, puzzled.
She lifted an eyebrow. “Ah.”
The penny dropped. “Oh you’re as bad as the Chief’s wives!” I exclaimed. “I do not have a crush on Hawk, any more than I had a crush on Spider or Chip! In fact, I deliberately chose him because I didn’t want him – no, I mean – Oh!” and I flung a big handful of deadnettle into the quern and began grinding it down. Very hard.
“So what should I do about it?” I said, once I trusted my voice.
“Decide who they are.”
That did not make sense. I waited.
“First, you must acknowledge that if your party is to succeed – indeed if your party is to survive, you must be united. You must work together, not against each other. I know that playing boys off against each other is fun, but you can not do it and live.”
She was sounding like my aunt. I hit the deadnettle even harder.
“I beg your pardon, but I did not quite…”
“Oh all right. I suppose so.” I may have said that a little too loudly, but even so it appeared to be acceptable.
“Very well. Birch, my dear!”
The voice was less than a handbreadth behind my right ear. I jumped so hard I hit myself in the chin with the pestle, tumbled backward off the stool and brought down a whole stack of dishes and jars around and on top of me. I was lucky I hadn’t knocked myself out.
How that girl did it I can not tell you. I would have sworn that that tent held just the two of us.
“Birch, my dear,” continued Speaker, rather obviously trying not to laugh, “please find the hunter Stack-of-strong-timber, who was of the Longwood party – you remember?”
“The heavy, square hunter with the warm dark skin, strong brown eyes, black hair, two teeth knocked out by a deer hoof, tattooed bands across the backs of both hands, and a scar across one shoulder blade, Mother?”
Speaker’s eyebrows shot up. “Yes, indeed. You appear to have observed him very carefully, my dear. Well, please find him, make him walk the camp boundary three times with the sun, then lead him in here. And we,” she turned to me, “have five minutes to look our best. Let us hope it is good enough.”
To judge by his face when Birch finally led Stack into the tent, our best was definitely good enough. Birch left him standing in front of us, without telling him what to do. He hovered a bit, then noticed a stool conveniently – and deliberately – placed to hand.
“You are not fit to sit before the Spirits!” Birch’s screech in his ear had exactly the effect on him it had had on me. The stool tangled itself round his legs and he finished up spread across a generous section of the tent floor.
“Why are the Spirits wasting our time with this clown?” hissed Speaker loudly. “He shows no respect. Why do we not scrape him into the dungheap?”
“Be patient, Lady, I beg thee,” I answered in a well-projected whisper. “He has started ill, true, but let thou see if he shows respect now. Only then let thou judge him.”
Poor Stack finally disentangled his legs from the remnants of the stool, and flung himself down at our feet in a full grovel, face firmly in the dust.
Speaker let him simmer for a good minute. “Very well, I see he can show a small semblance of respect if he choose.” She lifted her voice. “You may kneel, boy.” Stack rolled back onto his heels, but kept his head bowed. “You are the hunter Stack-of-strong-timber son of Lifts-rock of the Longwood Tribe?”
Stack nodded, very very fast.
“The Spirits are angry with you, Stack-of-strong-timber son of Lifts-rock of the Longwood Tribe, do you understand?”
Stack nodded, very very fast.
“No, that is not enough. Let us hear your voice, Stack-of-strong-timber son of Lifts-rock of the Longwood Tribe. Do you understand?”
“And do you understand why they are angry?”
“Very well, boy, let me try to explain so simply that even you will understand. Many days ago, the Spirits chose to appoint three of the Longwood Tribe to follow the tale of the Power Hills as far as it led, and perchance to bring back power to the Longwood Tribe. Do you understand?”
“The three chosen each had an allotted position and purpose, and each was chosen for that purpose. The first chosen was this Lady who is my guest here, Seer-of-hidden-things, and she was appointed as your shaman. Yes?”
“Seer’s our shaman, yes, Lady.”
“The second to be chosen was Hawk-on-high-bough son of Rope-tight-woven, and he was appointed as your Chief. Yes?”
“Yes, Lady.” There was a note of anger below the fear, even now.
“The third to be chosen was Stack-of-strong-timber son of Lifts-rock, and he was to be your Champion. Yes?”
“Champion, Lady? – Er, I meant yes. Yes, Lady.”
“To each is appointed the proper reward: to the Shaman, the brightness of the Spirits; to the Chief, the honour of the camp; to the Champion, the glory of the battlefield. So it always has been, and so it should have been with you. Yes?”
“Yes, I see, Lady.” His back had definitely straightened, and I thought he was looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
“And yet you have neither fulfilled your purpose as Champion, nor allowed your Chief to fulfil his in quiet. On the one hand you have undermined him and criticised him and encouraged his humiliation in front of the rest of the Tribe,” all one of me, “and on the other you have allowed your own pleasures and ambitions to make you unwary and left your Chief open to ambush and to attack from a wild boar. And there have been many other times when you have not ensured above all the safety of the Tribe but which the Spirits, in their mercy, have not permitted to lead to disaster. Yes?”
“Yes, Lady.” His gaze dropped again.
“And even your shaman you have criticised and patronised and come close to open defiance, so that she has had to threaten you with death just to get the least of your attention. Yes?”
“Yes, Lady.” Though he didn’t sound sorry enough to me.
“In short, instead of being a true Champion, you have acted like a second Chief. Yes?”
“And so the Spirits have humiliated you and criticised you and emptied you and left you useless and unwanted. Is that not so? Have they not taken away from you the pride and respect even of your own heart?”
His head was down again, now.
“And do you now, at last, understand why?”
“Yes, Lady, I do.”
“Maid Birch-twigs, bring the hunter Hawk-on-high-bough son of Rope-tight-woven of the Longwood Tribe before us.”
Soon all three of us were standing before the Cauldron, Hawk in the centre as Chief, Stack at his right hand as Champion, I at his left as Shaman. Speaker stood behind us both as prompter – yes of course we’d all heard these oaths sworn over and over again, but it’s best to be sure.
I began. “I bear witness to the Tribe and to the Spirits that I am called by the Spirits to be Shaman to this Tribe, to speak for the Tribe to the Spirits, to speak for the Spirits to the Tribe, to see what can not be seen, to speak what can not be spoken, to walk between enemies and to stand between friends,” and I took a ladleful from the Cauldron and drank.
Then Stack. “I swear by the Spirits and before the Spirits that I will be Champion to this Tribe, to fight for the Tribe against our foes, to stand firm in our enemies’ faces, to be watchful for the unseen pit, the hidden blade, the tripping noose, to set every life above mine, and value every death as my death,” and he too drank.
And finally Hawk. “I swear by the Spirits and before the Spirits that I will be Chief to this Tribe, to lead the Tribe to food and to water, to reward courage with glory, loyalty with honour, labour with gifts, honesty with freedom, evil with vengeance, to judge between the injured without favour, and to speak for the Tribe among the Tribes,” and he drank.
Finally I tore off some bread and gave it to Stack to eat, he gave bread to Hawk, and Hawk gave bread to me.
“Very good,” said Speaker. “Now you are truly a Tribe.”