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There was a flat, open area, big enough for a dancing floor but without any post or even much sign of dancing. And there were no tents; instead on the far side there were two oblong walls, side by side and three paces apart, built of squared blocks of grey stone, dull against the white of the snow. Each wall had an opening in the middle like a cave mouth, big enough to walk into, and covered with a hide curtain just like a tent door. There were other square openings in the walls, but they didn’t come down to ground level. The right hand wall was tatty and dirty, and there were baaing noises coming from it, like the baaing of the animals we killed on the hill.

“Ho-a Mother!” called out our second captor. “Look what we found in Fennicle Bowl!”

A woman, about my mother’s age I guessed, heavy built but not fat, stepped out through the left hand hide door. “Na na na!” she exclaimed. “Savages!” As she spoke, a couple of children slid out alongside, holding tight to her, and then ran back inside. “Oh, look at you two!” she went on. “You’ll catch your death, staying out on the hill all day in this! Put the savages with the other animals and come inside! The dinner’s ready.”

“Hey no, wife!” exclaimed the first captor. “They’ve already killed some of our sheep. We can chance them not in the byre.”

The woman sniffed. “Leave them out here then, till the morning.”

“They’ll die.” Our second captor prodded Stack with a forefinger. “Keep your hands up!”

“I thought savages feel not the cold.”

“These do, wife. They’re shivering already.”

“Oh all right. Bring them into the house. But be careful with them; never can you tell with savages, so my old mother used to say.”

They pushed us through the door with our own spearbutts. Inside we saw that the wall went on round a space, just as tent hides do, but squareish instead of round. The floor was hard stamped earth, strewn with rushes and herbs. Blocks of stone had been set one on another at one end, where a fire was burning, so that they made a sort of tube for the smoke, up through the roof of split tree-trunks, moss and turfs. We clustered together just inside the door, but our two captors walked past us, kicking off the leather covers they wore on their feet. They flung their cloaks onto a wooden frame in one corner, and warmed themselves at the fire.

They looked back at us.

“Throw your cloaks and packs on the maden with ours and come and let us see you,” ordered the older man. “Not too close – about there will do. And kneel.” So we did.

Oh it was so good to feel a warm fire! It took me several moments to think of anything else – and especially, to notice the sound of giggling.

“You can see his bum!”

“And his bellybutton!”

“She’s got no clothes on at all!”

“Just got a strap round her waist!”

“That must be her dress and it’s shrunk in the cold!”

And so on.

I looked round. Our captors were an oldish man and a much younger lad, maybe a year or so older than Stack and Hawk; obviously father and son. There were nearly a dozen other kids, all younger than the lad, and a cradle in one corner by the fire which looked to be in use. And all of them, from the father to the toddler, were covered neck to knees in cloth.

Now I know what the woman said, but it’s not true; we aren’t savages. We’ve seen cloth before; the Travelling Folk often bring it, and our Chief’s – no, the Longwall Chief’s First Wife has a complete dress made of cloth, which she wears on special occasions. The idea of weaving isn’t strange, either; leather thongs woven into hammocks, traps and hurdles woven from hazel twigs, and lots of others. But why wear clothes in camp? OK, we do wear some things: being a shaman I wear a few straps I can stick feathers and suchlike in for effect, and the Singer has some hand puppets and masks, and the Chief and the First Wife obviously dress to show their rank at special events, and most of the women like to strap on some dry moss during their periods; but cloth? There’s no point.

“There you are, I told you so!” The woman bustled in from another door. “Not even clothed like human beings! They’re just naked savages – just animals!”

Kneeling down in the middle of the floor with the others I tried to pretend I didn’t mind, that it was our captors who were stupid. It didn’t work.

The giggling and the pointing were interrupted by a meal; we got nothing, obviously. We just crouched down, glad to be warm, and wished we weren’t so hungry.

Why didn’t we make a dash for it, while they were eating? Surely if we timed it right, we could even have grabbed our cloaks and packs? I don’t know; I honestly don’t know. But I couldn’t even bring myself to suggest it. It just didn’t happen.

Eventually the meal ended, the table was cleared away, and it was our turn. The man and woman set a couple of chairs side by side facing the fire, and the older kids pulled a bench out and sat on it. The little ones just stood or sat on the floor, giggling and pointing out various anatomical details.

I felt so humiliated I was near to tears.

“Now, savages, stand up and come into the middle where we can see you.” We stood up like guilty children.

“Do you have names?”

Hawk spoke up. “Yes we have names, of course we do. I am Hawk-on-high-bough son of Rope-tight-woven, chief of the Causeway Tribe.”

More storms of giggles ran round the room.

“Those are names?”

“You can have not names like that!”

“They’re stupid!”

“Let’s give Baby a name like that – let’s call him Turd-in-the-nappy!”

Hawk was obviously struggling, but give him credit: he did keep going. “Here at my shoulder are Stack-of-strong-timber son of Lifts-rock, and our shaman, Seer-of-hidden-things.” But he’d lost all the strength he’d gained these last days; he sounded like a wimpish boy again.

And the giggles went on.

“What’s a shaman?”

“She looks not different.”

“P’raps it means a woman, but with no boobs.”

“Or a man with no balls and willy, like a wether but with the willy off as well.”

“That’d be a she-man!” This caused howls of laughter. It was so stupid, but I felt myself blushing.

The man leaned forward, rubbing his left arm with his right hand. “So what is a shaman?”

“I speak to the Spirits on the Tribe’s behalf,” I answered. “And they speak to the Tribe through me.”

The oldest boy laughed, but the man only snorted. “The Spirits! Huh! You care not to give us a demonstration, perhaps? A weather forecast for the next six months, maybe? Or where I can buy fodder for less than old Chawo screws from me? No, I thought not.”

“I speak when the Spirits speak, not when I choose.” It sounded so lame!

“So why were you on our hill?”

Hawk seemed to shrink even further. “We were travelling from the lands of the Mistwater Tribe on a journey eastwards to the Power Hills on the great river.”

“Really? Eastwards? So why were you walking north?”

North? Great. Yet another failure.

“We – we – I don’t know. We must have got lost in the snow.”

The man sat back. “Well, for your information I am Paedr of Torams, and this is my wife, Dair of Torams. You are in Torams Farm, north of the lands of the savages like you. My eldest son, young Paedr, you have already met on our hill.” The lad made an exaggerated bow, grinning from ear to ear. “Paedr, fetch their packs and things over. Let us see exactly what they are carrying.”

He tried to do it in a single trip, I imagine to show off; I was glad to see him fail.

The father began by picking up Hawk’s cloak. “Hmm,” he murmured loudly. “Deerskin, in two layers. And inside,” he unfolded it, “a fresh sheepskin.” He squinted at it. “From the Tumps heaf, I see. So it’s our skin, from one of our sheep. Yes? Did you kill the sheep it came from, or did you find it dead in the snow? And if it was dead, why hide it under your cloak?”

Hawk hesitated – I hoped he wasn’t thinking of lying – and then spoke, slowly, heavily. “Yes, we killed it. We didn’t know it was yours; we believed it to be a wild animal.”

“A wild animal?” the man interrupted amid more giggles. “A sheep, wild?”

“We didn’t know it was a sheep,” Hawk answered, hands clenched. “We have never seen a sheep before.”

That was the final straw. Everyone around us, from the father to the smallest toddler, collapsed in laughter. We just stood there while they laughed at us. What else could we do?

Eventually the laughter calmed down. “Just to finish,” the man said at last, eyes streaming, “if you knew not that it was a sheep, why hide it under your cloak?”

“It wasn’t under my cloak to hide it.” Despair dulled every word Hawk spoke. “It seemed the best way to use its warmth.”

“But what a pretty little collar!” He pulled Hawk’s gold collar off his neck into the firelight, bending it badly. “Gold. Well, maybe it will help pay for the sheep.” He put it on one side, and pushed up his sleeve to scratch at a bandage on his forearm.

“Now let us look in your pack.” He pulled it open and gazed in. “Ah. Meat.” He pulled it out with finger and thumb and sniffed it. “Sheep meat.”

“We thought it was wild!”

He ignored Hawk, and went on checking the pack. “Sa, it stinks in here… more sheep meat… and some – er – deer meat, I think, just left to bleed all over the pack… crude flint spear heads… a thrum of leather thongs, a knife – poor flint, not very sharp… a little pot filled with…” he opened it and sniffed, “…some sort of salve, I think… More pots like it… A sling… And what’s this, that hangs outside your pack?” He opened it and sniffed, then poked his little finger into it. “Ow! That’s hot! What is this, please?”

“A firepot. You pack it tight with bracket, put a cinder from the fire into it and close it tight. It will stay alight for three or four days, enough to light another fire, and the bracket lasts for months.”

“And what is bracket?”

“Er… it grows on the sides of trees.” There was surprise in his voice, which I didn’t feel was tactful.

“It is a kind of mushroom, my lord,” I added.

“There, you see? It ben’t all one way. You know not what a sheep is and I tell you, I know not what bracket is and you tell me. Even savages can teach us something.” This started a little giggle of its own. “Very well; let’s consider the next thief.”

He picked up Stack’s cloak. “You wrapped your plunder around your hips. Again, hidden under your cloak. For warmth. Of course.”

Stack just shrugged his spiritless shoulders.

“And your pack. Mm, nothing special – except a skinning knife, made from obsidian, not flint. Very nice. Where did you steal this?”

“It was a gift from the Mistwater Tribe.” There was something beside sulkiness in Stack’s voice, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Failure? – but it hadn’t been his fault we were caught.

“A gift,” repeated the man, and in his mouth it sounded like a lie. “And finally, the odd one out.” He reached for my things. “Now you, young lady, you wrapped our property round your legs.”

“For warmth, great chief,” There’s no harm in politeness, but it was difficult to know where to pitch it.

“At least you hid it not. Your cloak is two layers of deerskin, I believe, like the others.”

“This great chief is absolutely right, of course. And so great a chief will have seen that it is a little shorter than the others, compared to my height.”

He looked a little sneery at my courtesies. I could only hope that underneath they had gone home.

“It is indeed. And what is in your pack.” He emptied it out as well. “My, what an – er – interesting collection. But these little jars…”

“Great chief, I –” I began, and kicked myself.

He paused. “Great chief, I – what?”

“I beg the chief’s pardon. It was both foolish and discourteous of me to suggest how so great a chief should treat my things, especially as such a chief is more than wise enough to recognise dangers when he sees them.”

“Dangers? In these pots? What d’you mean – poisons?”

“Some of the medicines in those pots are strong enough to be poisonous if taken carelessly or without understanding, my lord, but I know such a great chief will not fall into such a foolish error. But others are salves and harmless ointments for abscesses and such.”

He scratched again at the bandage, and a little stain of pus showed at one edge. There must be a massive abscess under there. I couldn’t resist it.

“Is that an abscess, great chief?” I said. “If it is, I can cure it.”

“I’ve had it for over a month, young lady. You think you can cure it?” His false judiciality was all gone.

“Yes.” Therefore so was my false courtesy.

“Let her try, Da!” One of his daughters touched his arm. “They say some of these savages have strange powers when it comes to healing, handed down from the Elves themselves, so they say.”

“Ben’t so stupid, husband! You know not what filthy stuff goes into these salves!”“

He turned to his wife and seemed to be going to say something. But he turned back to me. “OK. Try.”

I unwrapped the bandage, and revealed a thoroughly infected wound, not a true abscess. I began by picking up Stack’s knife and lancing the infection, and carried on from there. It took nearly half an hour.

While I was working I could see the two eldest girls circling around Stack, prodding him with their fingers, looking down inside his loincloth, putting their hands down inside it, and such. They were even encouraging the younger girls to join in. Stack was obviously hating it, but he didn’t seem to know what to do – I’ve noticed before that girls are far happier about hitting boys than boys are about hitting girls. It was worrying; what if it got too much and his anger exploded?

The bandage was cloth, but so hard with dried pus that I had to pour boiling water over it to soften it.

“There,” I said, tying the last knot. “Don’t touch it till noon tomorrow, then unwrap it, and if it’s still septic clean it out and put more of this salve in. Once the wound is clean just let it heal naturally.”

He pulled his sleeve back down over the bandage, and they all took up their positions again. I went back to kneel with the others, and wondered why I’d wasted my time.

Professional pride, I suppose. Stones, I’m a fool.

And yet, somehow I didn’t feel quite as helpless as I had done.

“Very well, what shall we do with these naked savages? They live in trees, they go naked, they know not east from north, they believe in Spirits. We can have not these inferior races polluting our farm and killing our sheep. What can we do with them?”

“I can think of something!” said young Paedr, and he put his arm round my waist. I tried to push him off, but he caught my hands and held them in his right hand, pulling me back against him, while his other hand ran all over my body. It made my skin crawl; I tried to struggle free, but he was too strong.

“You can see how much she enjoys it!” the bastard said.

I bent down and bit his wrist. Not just a nip; I kept my jaws clenched hard on it. He swore, and pushed me away, so that I fell on the floor.

“We do indeed see,” said his father, “but for the moment please, little boy, go and sit down. I imagine your chance will come later.”

But I’d found a little something that had fallen out of my pack and hidden itself in the rushes. I palmed it, and got to my feet.

“Well? Anybody else have any ideas?” He stirred in his chair. “Shall we just kill them for dogfood?”

His tone had changed yet again; it was hard to grasp what was real and what was fake in this man’s voice. Then I saw the expressions on his wife’s face, and on his eldest sons’, and began to understand. All this was a charade, yes, but it had a purpose: it was making us out to be different – essentially different – from them, and therefore enemies. This man wanted an enemy because a tribe without an enemy is a tribe without a chief, and he saw himself as chief. But had he thought this through?

One of the girls who had been pestering Stack spoke up. “Da,” she said, “slaves go naked, as well as savages.”

“You’re a clever girl, Chrai!” he answered, smiling for the first time. “Yes, I could take them when we go into Brothy; there’s bound to be a slave trader around on market day.”

I cracked. “You ungrateful pig!” I spat. “And after fixing your arm for you!”

“Huh!” he replied. “What are you complaining about? You were going that way anyway, when we found you. And anyway, it’s all you inferior races are fit for. You’re enslaved to your pretend Spirits, so being enslaved to real people will be an improvement.”

“But husband!” The woman suddenly screeched. “That’s days away! I can have not these savages cluttering up my house, and dirtying everything!”

“Oh, stop fretting, wife! It’s only for… er…”

“Three days, Da, but…” said one of the boys. I hadn’t noticed him before, but he wasn’t giggling like the others.

His father interrupted him. “Three days, wife; that ben’t so long.”

“Too long in my house, husband! Get their filthiness out of here!”

“Oh, very well. Paedr, Tuas, tie them up in the byre for tonight. We’ll sort them in the morning. If the Spirits rescue them not first!” He laughed.

“Yes, Da!” leered young Paedr, and he and the next youngest lad dragged us out through the snow to the byre.

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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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