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A side effect of the deer hunt was that my boys had found an easier path; a pair of shallow ditches with poor land between, just like the Deathway – which surely proves them both natural; it’s possible to imagine the Elders doing something so weird once, but not twice! And like the Deathway, it was a little worrying to follow, even though we made really good progress. Perhaps too good.

“We’re going north,” muttered Hawk. “They said northeast. And surely if this path had been useful they’d’ve told us.”

Stack was leading, but he stopped and nodded. “Look, shall I scout ahead a bit – see what this does?”

Hawk nodded back, and Stack vanished. Only five minutes later he was back.

“Seer!” He tapped my arm. “You need to see this.”

I followed him along the path for just a couple of hundred paces, and then we took a little path left. Suddenly we were under a cliff, actually under an overhang of rock, by a trampled circle of earth.

“A holy place!” I exclaimed. “Stack, keep out! Did you enter it when you found it?”

“No, no!”

“Good.” I shook rattles in each hand, and danced three full circuits with the sun, keening softly through my whistles, while Stack stood very still and watched me. Then I led Stack back to Hawk.

“It’s a holy place, a shrine,” I told them both, “but the Spirits there are well disposed to us. But this explains why the Mistwaters didn’t tell us about the path; it must be their shrine and they didn’t want us desecrating it.”

Stack and Hawk looked at each other – they were doing that too much on this trip, I felt – and then Hawk sucked his teeth.

“Very well, but I still think we’re heading offline. We’re too far north; we should go due east.”

“There was another faint path east, where the path to the shrine turned off,” said Stack.

We took it. Again, it was only a hundred paces or so.

“A campsite!” Stack froze, and then slowly moved forwards. We followed, out onto the dancing floor.

Nothing moved, not even flies on the midden. The skeletons of the tents looked unreal in the evening light; as usual it was almost impossible to visualise the completed tents from the ringbeams and ringposts, or even from the stacks of roofpoles alongside each tentstead. We wandered round, picking out the drying frames, the scraping blocks, the yarn pegs, the pot kiln. It was all very sad, somehow.

“Summer camp for the Mistwaters?” murmured Stack.

“Or spring.” Hawk prodded idly at some old bedding. “That was young heather, once.” He stood up straight. “But tonight, an autumn camp for the Causeways.” He sighed. “We can stay here, in the Chief’s tent!”

“How d’you know it’s the Chief’s tent?” asked Stack, looking round. “They’re all the same size.”

“It faces north,” answered Hawk. “so that when he sits outside in his high chair everyone else has the sun in their eyes.”

Stack pursed his lips. “I’d noticed that, but you’re saying it’s deliberate?”

I decided we’d better change the subject.

“We need to ask permission from the Mistwater Spirits,” I said, “but I am sure they will be friendly.” And I invented a special dance, bowing and sweeping close to the ground, slow and quiet and humble. It fitted the place.

We spent a quiet, melancholy evening in the chief’s tentstead, undisturbed by Spirits or anything else. A single sparrowhawk flew across just at sunset, but otherwise nothing moved.

Once the boys were asleep I took the chance to look at my gift from Fatty the Chief. It was a map; it was on elderskin; the symbols were elderskin symbols – but it wasn’t original. The symbols on elderskin are always very hard edged, as though hammered in. These were very good, but they’d obviously been done with an ordinary pen. It was a copy – or a fake. I couldn’t tell which.

Either way, it taught me one thing: the trick of making elderskin did not die with the elders.

I thought, and decided that I should assume provisionally that it was a copy, and get what information from it that I could, and not rely on the information but test it. Then as it passed or failed the tests, I would soon know if I could trust it or not. So I studied it.

There were four big blocks of symbols, and half a dozen little groups that seemed to be labelling bits of the map. The map certainly showed two hills, but the big thing was a pair of lines that snaked down the middle, following each other but opening out as they went down the sheet. A river? The Power Hills were supposed to be eastwards across a river, and the two hills were indeed close to the right hand line. So east is to the right.

Where the lines almost met at the top there was a strange symbol, straight across the bottom, up one side, across, down, across, up, across, down, across, up, across and down the other side. No, no guesses. But there was a smaller version with just two tops east of the more northern hill. And there was a similar symbol near the bottom of the left hand line, on the west bank to the south where the river was wide; it wasn’t a bridge, then.

Now the river – if that was what it was – was not straight; at one point especially it did a big bend left, westwards. Across the middle of the bend was a dotted line. And when I started to look, there was another dotted line just below the funny symbol to the north. They were surely too big for bridges. Were they fords?

Finally, where the bottom funny symbol was, another line snaked northwards. A path? Or another river?

I gave up, put the whole thing carefully away in my pack – trying to avoid bloodstains from the deer meat – and fell asleep. I dreamed of funny symbols paddling down rivers and crashing into fords, while hills drew wiggly lines up the page.

It rained in the early morning, waking us gently; when it stopped, it left the air much cooler - I felt winter coming for the first time that year. I unpacked my cloak and put it on, and first Hawk and then Stack followed my example.

We packed up quickly, and got out. As soon as we left my spirits lifted.

There was a path almost due east, to Hawk’s obvious relief. It led through thick bushes, hazel at first, then gorse, and as we went we became surer and surer that we could hear rushing water. Soon it was as if we were standing in a noisy but completely invisible river.

“A ghost river!” Stack made the Sign. “A river of the dead!”

Hawk’s hand clutched and clutched again at his spear.

Honestly!

I did some rattling, and then I burrowed under the gorse – glad of my cloak against the prickles! – and found what I expected.

“It’s nothing to fear,” I told my two brave boys as they clutched their cloaks tight round them, “it’s just that the river goes underground. Come and see.” And I showed them where the rocks arched over the fast-tumbling stream, so that it flowed beneath our feet.

“Does it come out again?” asked Hawk, and we went to look: yes, it did. The bridge was three or four paces wide.

“Excellent!” Hawk seemed to have forgotten his recent wimpishness. “This tells us where we are; they said we would come to a river, but that we would cross with dry feet – this is obviously what they meant.”

“So we go due east from here, over a rocky hill, to another river which will be easy to cross, but not with dry feet. Then east still, up and over a steep hill, and across many streams and hills to the great pool set in the woods.” Stack recited.

“And that lake and the river that flows through it are the boundary of the Mistwater Tribe eastwards. There eastwards we pass through the lands of the Lake People, who are not a true Tribe, but are friendly to strangers. Should be easy enough. Come on, it’s starting to rain and there’s a clear path, let’s go.”

Rocky hill, was it? It seemed like climbing the side of a tent, and doing so under a thick grey blanket of cloud and rain that smothered every trace of sun, and therefore every trace of direction. We had no help from the hill either; every faint track died under a little cliff or sank into a bog. At least the gorse and scrub was above our heads, keeping the worst of the icy rain off us, and a rare birch or rowan gave us some clue to which way we were facing. After a final desperate struggle up rocks we reached the crest, and realised how fortunate we were; still higher cliffs towered above us in the cloud to our left. There was a shadow of a path across the open crest, and we ran along it from the vicious wind and rain on our backs, but as usual it died in the gorse bushes and stunted rowan. Then hawthorn and blackthorn and hazel and wayfaringtree and finally ash trees wrapped round us as we slithered and scrambled down to the next river.

“That was cold,” said Hawk.

“Really?” I said, “I hadn’t noticed.”

Stack snorted.

The river was deepset, quiet and fast where we hit it, but even I could hear noisier water upstream to our left. It turned out to be where two streams joined, making a wide shallow pool choked with boulders and fallen trees. I put a foot in the water and all but screamed at the cold.

Stack tried it and leaped back; I didn’t catch exactly what he said, but it wasn’t a compliment. Hawk didn’t even try.

“Now look,” I said when I’d got my breath back. “We’ve been walking fast with our cloaks on, so our feet are warm. Of course the water will feel cold. We need to let our feet cool, and then take it gradually.”

“Oh, come on!” said Hawk. “It’s not that bad! We just need to plunge straight in and get used to it. It won’t be too cold at this time of year, especially if we cross over there, where it’s gravel. We just need to go for it.” Hawk, you will remember, had not tried it, so how did he know how cold it was? Typical.

“Yes,” I said as I raised an eyebrow at Stack, “let us step bravely in our chief’s footsteps, warmed by the print of his courage.”

Hawk frowned, but I looked all innocent, so he couldn’t say anything. He stepped up to the water’s edge, hovered a bit, and then put a foot in the shallowest patch. I thought his eyes were going to pop out.

“H-h-it’s h-all h-right! Not h-too bad at – at – at all.” He took another pace, so he now had both feet in. Tears streamed down his face. “H-h-it’s good h-h-gravel.”

And Stack and I had no choice but to follow. After five paces I had cramp in both feet, my eyes were streaming, and my teeth ached. I still can’t work out why my teeth came into it, but there you are. In the end I cracked; I just ran for the far bank, whimpering with the pain. Hunters aren’t allowed to do that, of course, but their teeth were gritted as they struggled out onto the dry rocks next to me.

To judge by the alder and willow that sheltered us, the ground itself was boggy; but it was covered in rocks and boulders that either had been swept down by the streams or had tumbled down the hillside in front of us, so even I had no trouble clambering over to dry ground and proper oak trees.

“I know it’s early,” said Hawk, drying his feet on his cloak, “but we’ve done a good step today and that crossing took a lot out of us. And that hill in front of us does look steep. Why don’t we camp here tonight?”

“Yes!” said Stack and I simultaneously.

Stack found a flat area of land just a few paces up the hill, so flat that I wondered if it had once been a camp. I didn’t say anything, of course; my boys would have had nightmares about ghosts and such if I had. But I was extra careful with my dance that night, just to cheer myself up.

The night was cold and wet, but our shelter held up well. The next morning the sun shone into the clearing. I felt good again, and enjoyed a good breakfast of deer meat. We had a couple of days of meat left in our packs, even then.

Even as we ate the weather closed in. The sun faded, the clouds thickened, and the rain came, first a light drizzle, then in spearshafts, and then back to steady unrelenting wetness. It had a chill in it that bit your bones, as if it were midwinter, not the middle of autumn. I packed up, warmed myself for the last time at the fire, wrapped my cloak tight around me, gritted my teeth, and strode out after Hawk into the rain.

The striding didn’t last. I’d thought the last hill steep; it was a stroll compared with this one. We couldn't stay together. I fought my own way up through the trees, sometimes clambering over boulders, sometimes working around little crags buried in dead branches, but usually just struggling upwards through soft ground covered in deep leaf litter lower down, or drifts of pine needles higher up, as oaks gave way to ash, ash to fir and spruce, to birch and pine and juniper. I was vaguely aware of the others doing the same; I was in no state to pay them any more attention than that. And the cold rain rained and rained, never pelting, but never slackening, soaking my cloak and drawing cold dribbles down my back and arms and buttocks and legs.

In the end it was so steep that I was on hands and knees, dragging myself up the slope by the gorse branches, my useless cloak weighing me down with water, until Stack helped me collapse into a little bowl of grass, rimmed and roofed with gorse, and paved with animal droppings. Hawk crawled in a few moments later.

“Steep, that,” he said.

“I suppose you hunters do this sort of thing every day,” I answered.

“Huh!” said Hawk, and Stack snorted.

I laughed, found a prickle-free spot to sit down, and glanced round the little dell. It was smelly, but it was dry and sheltered, so I didn’t care, and nor did my boys, as far as I could judge.

“Wind’s changed,” said Stack, pulling gorse prickles out of his hand.

“The rain’s stopped,” I said, scraping as much water as I could off my cloak.

“It may hit us again when we cross the top,” said Hawk, scraping his own cloak off. “I think we’re going in the right direction, though.”

“Shade south?” said Stack. “If it matters.”

Well-greased deerskin doesn’t hold much water, and at worst it’s only the outer layer that gets really wet. After half an hour we had warm, dryish cloaks again, that felt like deerskin and not sandbags. Our packs were still heavy, but there was nothing we could do about them without a fire. And at last we had a way to follow; from the mouth of our little bowl a clear path led upwards through the gorse.

After a hundred paces or so the boys went into a private huddle, staring at the ground. I stared too. “What prints are these?” I asked. “Is this a people path?”

“Not people, at least not often,” said Hawk. “We don’t recognise the tracks, but they’re like deer.”

“Less pointed than our kinds,” said Stack.

“Probably the deer round here are a bit different, and that’s all there is to it. But that print’s odd,” said Hawk, pointing to a puddle. “It’s like a human print, but no toes.”

“There’s been a few of them,” added Stack. “Anyway, let’s get on while the rain’s dropped.”

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Bio: Just a retired mathematician who likes writing stories about the beautiful part of the world he lives in.

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