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So what was all that mumbo-jumbo about? Why couldn’t we just be a Tribe without all that swearing and eating and repeat-after-me-ing? I kicked a stone across the backpatch – it just missed a drying frame. Pity.

“Seer!”

I went to kick another, but it turned out to be just a clod, so I stamped on it instead.

“Hey, Seer! Can I have a word?”

And if I were a half-competent shaman, wouldn’t I understand why all that stuff mattered? And wouldn’t I have thought of it and done it myself?

I turned; Hawk recoiled. “It’s just a very quick word,” he said, through a very forced-looking smile. “It’s just that, Stack and me, we thought our Tribe should have its own name.” He blinked. “I think I’ll come back some other time. When you’re – er – not busy.”

“Oh, no,” I shrugged, and sat down on a corner of the scraping block. “No, It’s OK.” I dragged my thoughts together as Hawk sat down next to me. “We’ve sworn in as tribal leaders, but obviously not of the Longwood tribe. So which tribe?” And why hadn’t this been obvious? Stones, I felt useless.

“I thought maybe the Endstone Tribe, because that’s neutral ground, we wouldn’t tread on anyone’s toes. But Stack thinks the Deathway Tribe, because that’s where we fought our first battle.”

I wasn’t really bothered, not just at that moment, but it was nice sitting next to Hawk in the autumn sun, his skin against mine, so I fetched out the Stones and began to murmur the words of casting.

“Endstone!” I said aloud at last, and got a fairly weak No.

“Deathway!” I said, and got a very definite No.

Hawk looked at me, and then past me and waved. Stack came over and stood next to him, looking down at me.

“The Stones don’t like our ideas,” said Hawk. Stack nodded, and sat down next to Hawk.

Right. I sat back in my “I am communing with the Spirits” pose, and tried to think. And a question came to me: when did we become a Tribe?

“When did we become a Tribe?” I asked aloud. “While we stood on Longwood lands, we were of the Longwood Tribe, whatever we said or did. When we crossed the Causeway we left the Longwoods. And when we crossed the Causeway we did so with tied hands, as one Tribe. And we crossed at the Chief’s word, the Champion’s lead, the Shaman’s guide.”

Hawk and Stack looked at each other.

“And also,” I went on, “the Causeway links the Longwood and Mistwater lands, and we link the Longwood and Mistwater Tribes.”

Hawk nodded and Stack shrugged, so I cast for Causeway, and got a Yes. Not the strongest Yes, but who cares?

“So we’re the Causeway Tribe,” said Hawk.

“And you’re the chief of the Causeway Tribe,” I said, “and Stack is the Champion of the Causeway Tribe.”

“And you are Shaman of the Causeway Tribe,” finished Hawk. “But…”

Stack and I looked at him.

“But how long for?”

Ah. I’d been wondering when this was going to come up. “Yes,” I said aloud, “We hadn’t really thought things through when we started, had we. We just did what the Spirits said and set out. We didn’t think about how long it would take, or what the journey would be like.”

“And I think that was right; we were right to obey the Spirits without question. But now…” Hawk paused. “Now I am truly a Chief, I have a duty to think things through. And I ask – how long will it take? Stack, you’ve been out with the Mistwater braves more than I have – have they said anything?”

“They’ve heard of the great river to the east,” said Stack. “Ten or fifteen days away.”

“And it’s already after Sunfall. We may not be back for Nightwatch.” I counted on my fingers. “Sunfall to Nightwatch is probably ninety-one days this year, and Sunfall was ten days ago, so that leaves eighty-one. Then thirty days there and back to the big river leaves fifty-one.”

“We should be back,” Hawk nodded, “but it only needs an accident, or a hard winter, or it’s a different river. We may miss Nightwatch.”

“They say the people we’ll meet are very strange,” said Stack.

“Should we turn back?” I had to ask the question; it had been hanging between the three of us for too long. It’s a shaman’s job to speak what can not be spoken.

“No.” Hawk’s fist beat twice on his knee.

“No.” Stack came dangerously close to smiling.

“No,” I did smile.

Next day Hawk thought it safest – typical Hawk – to consult the Mistwater chief about our Tribe’s new name. We got a roaring laugh, so that was good, but he didn’t stop at laughing.

“So where is your great Tribe proposing to move on to now?” The remaining chuckles rolled and wobbled through his great folds of fat.

“We shall take up again our search for the Power Hills, if the Spirits please, Great Chief, and so we propose heading East.” Hawk was being chieftainly, but the contrast with two days ago was stark; then, he’d looked like a lad pretending to be a Chief, but now he looked like a Chief who happened to be very young. Somehow he’d grown up since we first crossed the Causeway. Had we all?

No, I don’t believe it was the ceremony, though that may have helped. But now I looked, even Stack seemed less – well, he seemed to have stopped sulking like a child and started sulking like an adult. And I wondered. Had I grown up at all?

Anyway, the Mistwater Chief frowned. “Ah, yes. I remember. Well, you are not the first to try. The first to come back, though, if you do.” He waved across the dancing floor, and a brave came over to us. Oldish – his dark brown hair had grey streaks – and so many scars he looked as if he’d been nibbled by rats.

“I think you have been down eastwards these last weeks, Pole? Are conditions good?”

The brave shook his head. “Since the Valley Tribe tried to push back east last summer and failed, all the lands from the Walls north to below the Axeblows are in turmoil. There are opportunities for hunting, because everyone is fighting each other, and the animals are not disturbed, but nowhere there is safe to pass.”

Hawk leaned forward. “Great Chief, what is meant by the Axeblows?”

The brave looked at the Chief, who nodded.

“There are four deep gashes in the land, each a day’s journey from the next, each five day’s journey long, each running north to south.” The brave was holding his fingers up, trying to explain it that way as well. “Each has its own Tribe, and each hates the Tribe in the next, so if you are befriended by one, the next will kill you. The Tribes are fierce, but deceitful and cunning, and the passes between each gash are snared and trapped. To travel east it is necessary to pass south or north of the Axeblows. To attempt to cross them is death.”

“But south of these Axeblows is also dangerous?”

“Yes, but not so dangerous as crossing them. North of the Axeblows is said to be a wide, bare and difficult land with little game, and I have never hunted there - but if I would go eastwards at this time it may be I would go north of the Axeblows.”

The Chief waved him away, and he bowed and left.

“A fool ignores knowledge,” quoted Hawk. “But if I may presume still further on your generosity, Great Chief, what is the way around to the North?”

Two days later, we were about to find out.

Speaker and I danced the Blessing, I dusted myself down and threw my pack over my shoulder. Hawk glanced at me and at Stack, and we set off. Almost.

“Hawk-on-high-bough son of Rope-tight-woven, Chief of the Causeway Tribe, I greet you!” Fatty – sorry, Strong-deer-hide son of High-beech-tree, Chief of the Mistwater Tribe – was sitting on his chief’s chair again, and in full regalia. “I would speed you on your way with a gift, Great Chief!”

Hawk hesitated, and then walked forwards. “Great Chief, the gift of your good will and of your bountiful hospitality is far more than we could wish for. Be assured your praises shall be sung wherever any of our Tribe may camp.”

Fatty smiled conventionally at the conventional reply. “Nonetheless, I would give yet more, that there may be a symbol of our friendship for all to see.”

A brave stepped forward and unwrapped a fawnskin. Hawk lifted up what was lying there: a collar. No, not a thick rope like the Mistwater Chief’s, just a single thin loop, thinner than a pot string, but still – gold. Hawk held it high for all to see, and then fastened it round his neck.

That was some gift. Just generosity? Or…

The Mistwater chief smiled all the way down his chins. “And not only that, but a token of your bringing the Mistwater Tribe and Longwood Tribe together in friendship. Your father is blessed in his son, though he seems sadly unaware of his blessing.”

Oh damn. That is not going to make Hawk any easier to control. Not that I was going to control him, of course; Speaker had explained all that to me. At length. Several times. But you never know, do you.

But Fatty hadn’t finished. “And for your Champion, who has killed two boar and a deer in his short visit to us,” – indeed! It’s always a shock to find out that things have happened that I don’t know about – “another small token of our esteem.” This was a knife. The blade was triangular, tiny, only a thumbjoint long; not flint, a dark shinier stone that I didn’t recognise. Stack took it, kissed the blade, and tapped it on the back of his thumb, so that it could taste and recognise his blood. By the ease with which the blood flowed, the knife was deadly sharp – perhaps even sharper than flint. Another generous gift – I began to do some thinking.

“And finally, for your Shaman – always difficult. But since you seek the Power Hills, and this seems to show two such hills, maybe this is a fitting gift.”

It was a tube of elderwood, like the amulet we took from the Valley hunters, but nearly two spans long. The sheet of Elderskin inside, cracked and stained as it was, had four blocks of the Elder symbols, and what looked like a map with two hills on it. The other markings were not so easy to follow; I would have to study it at leisure.

I bowed. “May the Spirits walk before you, Great Chief of the Mistwater Tribe. I shall ever bring your generosity before the Spirits, that their blessing may be continually renewed.”

“And so I trust you will leave us with your blessing,” The Chief sat forward in his chair. “I trust that you will honour all our tribes and their chiefs in everything you do, wherever you may go, and whatever you may hear.”

Now I was really doing some thinking!

A gift to a parting guest, yes, fine, very polite. But that means a packed lunch, perhaps, or at most a new firepot; not munificence on this scale! What was going on? And what was the meaning of that very curious final speech?

To summarise, we were being bribed, but nobody told us what for. I wasn’t looking forward to finding out.

Anyway, finally we could go. Stack our Champion first, then me, our Chief at the rear, all right and proper, until we were all sure we were out of sight and could relax.

The first day was in woods. And I found myself thinking it wasn’t so very different from our own woods – no, I must stop thinking like that. Not so very different from the Longwoods’ woods. A little stab of pain dug into my stomach, and I glanced round at Stack and Hawk, looking for something familiar, something comforting. The moment passed.

We were making good distance, even though none of us knew the woods; but then my boys weren’t stopping every five paces like they had been doing a week ago. And yet this time they had every excuse; one thing that was different from the first part of our journey was the wildlife – indeed, it seemed to me better than anywhere in the Longwoods lands. Every tree seemed to have a pigeon or a crow in it; we three times saw squirrels, and Hawk or Stack were forever picking up chewed pinecones or bits of bark and nodding meaningfully to each other – without explaining anything to me; I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore them.

We did stop for a good rest at noon. Hawk tossed a desultory pebble at a squirrel. It just laughed at him.

Well into the afternoon, though, Stack suddenly froze, so we froze too. Then Hawk crept forwards, and he and Stack exchanged a series of gestures. Then Hawk turned to me, gestured my silence and stillness, and then both silently slipped off their packs and crept away northwest into the trees. There was a long pause, then a sudden crash and smash, then the noise of a large animal running in panic through the trees away from me, and finally a distant shout. Then another long pause, and then Stack and Hawk were coming back, dragging a young roe hind between them.

“Congratulations!” I said, and I meant it.

“Wind was right,” answered Stack, but he looked pleased. I hardly recognised him.

“Sharp of you to pick it out, though,” said Hawk. “Anyway, let’s get this deer jointed and packed. Or can we camp here?”

“It’s a bit early!” I said, but then I did the sums. “Perhaps, though – the nights are drawing in, after all.”

“Stream over there,” said Stack. “We crossed it.”

Close to the stream we found a stand of huge oaks, wide spaced but sheltering all the ground under them. A perfect campsite, if it had been drier. Hawk carried the deer; he dropped it on a patch of rocks with a sigh. Stack took out his new knife, and began to open the skin.

“Wow!” he exclaimed, and pulled the blade out again to stare at it. “This is one sharp knife! It’s like cutting leaves!”

“Fine!” replied Hawk. “If it’s as easy as that, you won’t need any help.”

So he and I set up a camp, while Stack skinned and jointed the deer. We ate well that night – and it was good to be back to proper meat, without all that stodgy bread stuff. The ground was cold and damp, so we slept up an oak tree.

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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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