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The byre turned out to be through the doorway in the other wall. It was one big walled space, floored and roofed just like the other place, the house, but without the herbs on the floor. There were what they called pens; half-high walls or fences round small spaces, each with a wooden gate, not a door, to entrap the animals; and there was no fire, just straw, hay, dogs and sheep. They pushed us into a pen with some sheep, and then one tied Stack’s hands to a beam while the other stopped Hawk and me from getting away. Not that he needed to; where were we going to run to, with no cloaks in this weather? Then the other lad tied Hawk to a different beam while young Paedr held me round the waist with one arm, and the back of my neck with the other. What he intended doing next was obvious; so I forestalled him; I grabbed his face in my two hands and gave him a big, slobbery, wide-mouthed kiss – and spat a certain little parcel down his throat.

“What was that?” he gagged.

“Your death,” I answered, and laughed in his face.

Horror exploded his face. He turned away, bent over and pushed a finger into his throat. He retched.

“Too late,” I grinned – but my eyes didn’t. “The wrapping will already have been pulled apart in swallowing. You will be able to bring up the leaves, but the poison will remain.”

The other lad came over. “What’s going on, Paedr?”

“She’s poisoned me! The bitch has poisoned me!” He lurched out of the doorway, the other lad following. I untied Hawk and Stack, and explained. Then we waited.

Old Paedr marched into the byre, followed by all the rest of the family. He pulled young Paedr in front of him.

“Paedr tells me you’ve poisoned him.”

“Oh?”

“Have you?”

“How would a mere naked savage know what a poison is?”

He slapped my face. “Have you?”

I just laughed.

“Fine,” he said. “Then we will kill you now.”

“Then he will die,” I answered, turning away. “Oh,” I added over my shoulder, “and so will you. Once the so-called salve spreads out from your arm.”

He reached out and pulled me back round by my shoulder. I laughed again.

“You must think me a stupid fool, to let me treat your arm when I knew you were going to enslave me,” I added. “A stupid savage, so stupid she could be trusted, not like you superior civilised races, who have no trace of trust in you at all.”

“You’ve poisoned me, too?”

“Clever boy!” I patted him on the cheek. “Hasn’t the pain in your arm faded? Surely you’ve noticed. That’s the poison spreading through the wound, numbing it, paralysing it, as the paralysis will slowly spread from the wound to your arm, from your arm to your shoulder, from your shoulder to your chest, from your chest to your heart. And then you will die. It will take days, but you will die. But there is one good thing,” I laughed again. “Your son will die first. You will be able to give him a good sendoff.”

“Da! Da!” His son clutched his arm. “Da! I’m frightened!”

“Fool!” his father spat the word in his face. “She’s bluffing! She has poisoned not anyone. We would have felt the poison, and there is no feeling. Is there!”

“No, but –” and the horror in young Paedr’s face suddenly grew. He clutched his stomach, gasped, and vomited dramatically over a good two paces of floor.

“That’s how it starts,” I said. “But this is nothing. It will soon become serious.”

“I still think she’s bl–” but then he had to jump back out of the way of another bout of projectile vomit.

“Da!” wailed young Paedr. “My stomach! It hurts so!”

“Oh, no, no!” I tutted. “Not compared with how it will hurt in the next hour or so, as you die.”

The father gripped my shoulders. “And you’re going to tell me there’s an antidote, but you’ll give it not to me unless?”

“That sort of thing, yes. But there is an alternative.”

“What?”

“The antidote must be in one of the pots in my pack. Why not try them, see if any work? Not all of them, of course; but you might be lucky and hit the antidote before you hit another poison.”

I lifted his arms gently off my shoulders and gripped his. “Though not all of my poisons have antidotes.” I patted his cheek again. “But it’s cold out here. Let’s go back to your fireside.”

This time Hawk and I sat in the chairs, and Stack sat on the bench, looking sulky and triumphant at the same time – and also as tense as a lathecord. Those stupid girls last night… I didn’t like it, and I hoped Hawk had noticed.

“Kneel!” Hawk commanded.

Nobody moved at first, but then young Paedr screamed and shot out another jet of vomit. His father turned to him as if to speak, turned back, and knelt. Everyone else knelt too.

“Very well,” said Hawk. “So you agree to accept our terms, unconditionally, as long as Seer here cures the poisoning?”

“Yes,” muttered Paedr senior.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Yes!” he said, louder, and his son screamed. “Yes, yes! Oh shit, my stomach! Quick, quick, yes!” He doubled over, retching.

“Very well,” declared Hawk. “Remove your clothes. All of you.”

“What!”

“Remove your clothes. All of your clothes. Strip naked, like naked savages. Now!”

There was a murmur of grumbling and a few whines and screams from the smaller children, but young Paedr almost ripped his off, and the others soon followed.

It was interesting to see what they wore: the males all had “breeches” which fitted fairly close from the waist down each leg separately to just above the knee, and then a “tunic” from the neck down, belted at the waist and skirted to below the knee, and with long loose sleeves tied at the wrist; the mother and the eldest daughters wore a “shift”, long sleeves and high to the neck and shaped to fit their curves well as far as the hips, and then skirted fairly full to the ankles; over that a “dress” which had no sleeves but otherwise was similar. The younger girls just had a single dress, fairly loose – but then they didn’t have curves to fit to.

Then we dressed ourselves. Old Paedr’s clothes were a little big for Stack, but a few careful pins fixed it; young Paedr’s were a little short on Hawk, but nothing to worry about; and the eldest daughter’s clothes fitted me beautifully, except at the bust – and I had reason to believe that that too might fit fairly soon – and I felt good! There’s nothing wrong with nakedness, but clothes do something for a girl, believe me.

Young Paedr gave another scream, and his father grabbed my arm – and instantly let go, I was pleased to see.

“Hurry – please – look at my son – he’s dying.”

“Oh, very well!” I looked at Hawk and he nodded. I picked out a particular jar from the heap, smeared it on young Paedr’s finger, and told him to lick it off. He did – with some difficulty; he seemed to have problems with the taste. How surprising.

“It will take about an hour to work fully,” I said, “But he should feel better in ten minutes or so.”

I was right, of course, although I hadn’t given him an antidote; the poison was on the point of wearing off naturally. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t meant to be swallowed, and it was actually intended to finish an unwanted pregnancy, but I thought it better not to explain this; it seemed an unnecessary complication.

“And what about me?” The man had ceased to bluster.

“Why should we care what happens to a naked savage?” replied Hawk. I looked at the family; the youngest kids weren’t bothered by the lack of clothes, but they could tell something bad was happening; the man and his wife had ceased to try to cover themselves after the first shock; it was the kids in the middle who were blushing furiously and trying to hide their bodies any way they could.

Stack stamped his foot. “What about our packs?” he demanded. “Why haven’t you put everything back? What about our cloaks? What about our Chief’s collar? What about our spears?”

“You can’t expect that level of intelligence from mere naked savages,” I said. “Any more than you can expect them to offer food to guests. They are too uncivilised, too inferior.”

The man and his wife had started packing, but when I spoke they stood up. “No!” said Hawk. “Not you! You get on with the packing. Your two eldest daughters can set up the table and serve Stack and us.” So he was worrying about Stack, like I was; good for you, Hawk.

The girls did as they were told, blushing furiously the whole while. It was a really great meal – one I’ll never forget.

“Now,” said Hawk, leaning back in his chair. “What shall we do with these naked savages?”

“My arm!” Paedr senior was almost pleading! Oh, this felt good!

“It can wait a little longer,” said Hawk – he almost spat it.

That didn’t seem like Hawk. “I think I’d better see to it now, and get it over with,” I replied.

“No, it can wait!”

Hawk?

“Don’t worry,” I whispered. “You’ll enjoy it! Promise!”

Hawk shrugged, but his lips were white. “No – I – Oh – Oh, OK then!”

The wooden frame where the cloaks were thrown was very solid, so I undid the bandage and strapped his arm to the beam; it was just the wrong height for him. Then I pretended to probe the wound.

“Can you feel this?”

“No,”

“Or this?”

“No.”

“This?”

“No.”

“Perhaps we’ve left it too late,” I sighed, opened the pot, and told one of the children to bring me a cup of hot water – boiling hot – and a spoon. The salve mixed with the hot water scented the whole room, as I’d intended.

I lifted a little out with the spoon, and waited till it cooled.

“I’m going to swab out the wound,” I told him. “It might hurt.”

Actually I only swabbed the skin around the wound.

“It’s not too hot in the wound is it?” I asked.

“I – I can feel it not at all in the wound!” His voice quavered with fear. I was enjoying myself immensely.

“Then we must wait a moment.”

After a minute or so I placed a drop of scalding hot water from the cup directly into the wound itself. He jerked so hard it tested the wooden frame.

“You felt that, I take it?”

He whimpered.

“Ah, good. The antidote is taking effect.”

I repeated the treatment at half minute intervals, until the water had cooled too much to be fun.

“Excellent,” I said. “Now I will treat the wound with real salve, and bind it up again.” I waved the bandage in the general direction of the family. “Wash that out for me. It may have poison on it.”

When I had finished, Hawk took up position again. He did look more relaxed.

“We still have the problem of what to do with these naked savages, and it’s getting late. Stack, take the man savage and tie him up in the byre.”

“No tricks,” I added, “just his good arm tied tight. He needs to be able to move that bad arm around, at least to some extent. And let him sleep – don’t make him too uncomfortable.”

Stack looked sulky – in other words, his expression didn’t change.

I looked at young Paedr, still clutching his stomach. “And take this thing out there too – he’ll be too smelly for us to want him in here,” I said. “But no tricks with him either – he’s too weak. Or at least, no worse than uncomfortable. He won’t get much sleep, whatever you do.”

Stack continued to look sulky, and went out with the two Paedrs.

Hawk took over. “Now, the rest of you! Through that door seems to be warm enough, and has no other ways out. You can spend the night in there. You don’t come out till we say so.”

“You can take just one cloth for the baby,” I added quickly. “Go! Now!”

By the time they’d all squeezed into the little space, Stack returned. I went out to check on his work, and he had been good. The man’s good arm was tied to an overhead beam, the bad arm to a horizontal beam, but above the elbow, so he could flex and move his lower arm where the wound was. He would have to sleep kneeling, but I was happy with that. The lad was tied face down at floor level, in the sheep pen, his head resting on a pile of droppings. How appropriate.

We drew straws, and I lost. I threw my cloak down in front of the prison door, while the other two slept cosily by the fire. I fell asleep before I knew I was lying down.

But I woke, suddenly and completely, some time in the dark of the night. I was still tired, but my brain was racing.

You expect I’d be feeling triumphant, but I wasn’t. In front of my mind was anger, anger at how these people had treated us. It wasn’t that they’d tortured us or robbed us, they hadn’t; it was that they’d despised us. That hurt, and it hurt through any sense of victory I might have had.

So to try and calm my mind, I began thinking through what had happened, and found something else churning my brain. Why hadn’t we resisted more? Why did I suddenly decide to pick up that pill, when I could have done so a dozen times before? And then as I began to work on it, another question: why had they collapsed so? I tried thinking it through; it wasn’t easy to remember exactly what had happened. In the end I decided that all these questions were one; that somehow the humiliation had made us unable to resist, and then when they suffered humiliation, they were unable to resist. I still couldn’t quite see it, but surely the answer was somewhere there?

Underneath all this was the worst question of all. If I really was a shaman, wouldn’t I understand this? I didn’t understand what had happened here, I didn’t understand what difference the ceremonies in Mistwater camp made, I’d totally failed to humiliate Hawk with the flies and gnats, I understood nothing. Nothing. And I called myself a shaman.

I couldn’t lie there any longer. I sat myself in the corner next to the doorway, in the Approach posture, and very very softly began crooning the Cradling Song. It’s restful, and it’s got happy memories; my Nan used to sing it to me. I hoped it would calm my nerves.

There was a rustle, and a little head poked round the door curtain. I recognised the lad who’d counted the days to market day.

“Please!” it whispered. “Can I come out? I’m Geivin. Can I come out and speak to you, please, miss?”

What the heck. “Yes, all right, but we must whisper.”

He was eight or nine, I suppose, skinny and generally a nondescript brown. In fact, he had the air of someone you wouldn’t notice. His eyes were big, but that might just have been that he was scared.

He sat next to me, hugging his knees. “I heard you singing, so I knew it was you. It’s about the Spirits,” he whispered. “Everyone else would laugh at me, cos they believe not in them; but I do. I know they’re real.” He shuffled. “I know you’re an enemy, and all that, so you probably will not, but I just hoped, I just wondered, whether you would mind teaching me a bit about them? You’re the first person I’ve met that I’ve had a chance to talk to. Nobody else understands.”

He stared up at me with big eyes.

What could I do? I couldn’t tell him what I really thought, could I? So I put my arm round him, and I taught him about the Spirits, just like my Nan had taught me. The very simplest things: who they are, what they are, what they do, how you tell a good Spirit from a bad one.

“So my friend’s a good Spirit. I thought he was,” he whispered.

“Your friend?”

“Yes, that’s how I first knew they were real.” He yawned. “He always felt good, just like you, even when things go wrong he always feels good.”

“Hasn’t he told you anything about the Spirits?”

“Not really. It ben’t like that. He ben’t someone you talk to, like Gort.”

“Gort?”

“Gort is Ioann’s friend. He’s just imaginary. But my friend ben’t like that. He’s…” and when I looked down, he was fast asleep.

By the Stones, I felt such a hypocrite.

I folded my cloak over us both, and fell asleep too.

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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.

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