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The baby woke us all, just at first light; I managed to sneak my pupil back in with the others without anyone noticing.

Hawk pulled back the curtain. “Stones, you stink!” he exclaimed. “Where do you get water?”

“From the Elven Pool,” said a girl’s voice.

“Show me. Or no, show Seer.” Thank you Hawk – couldn’t face a bit of cold weather all of a sudden?

The girl came out, still trying to hide herself with her hands. I recognised her; she was one of Stack’s tormentors last night. I picked up my cloak and a spear and she picked up a bucket as we walked to the door. As the wind outside hit her, she recoiled.

“Oh, please let me put on a –”

“Out!” I said, and pushed her with the spearbutt. “Now!”

And then I realised I held the solution to one of our problems: Stack. He had a right to revenge, but he would be reluctant to hit or hurt a girl – and quite right too, I felt. But if I took revenge for him, and drew the line for him? Yes, that should work.

It was far colder than yesterday, I was delighted to find. We went up across the flat area to where a stream had been diverted into a pool, only twenty paces away from the house. The pool was three paces across, but more than twice that wide; to the right, under the hill, the end was a half circle of steps going into the water, with the stream cascading in down a specially cut channel at the midpoint; on the left a complicated ramp thing led into the water, across its bottom end and out. Although the pool was so huge it seemed to have been carved out of a single huge block of stone; I could understand why the farm people thought the Elders had made it.

There was ice on the ramps and the steps, and cat ice covered much of the pool; even by the steps it rimmed the water for a good foot wide.

The girl was already chattering with cold. She looked pleadingly at me, but I just gestured to the pool. She worked her way down the steps, broke the ice with the bucket, and filled it. She winced whenever her hands touched the water. Then she came back up the steps, and made as if to go back to the farm.

“Put the bucket down!” I said.

She looked at me, almost said something, then put it down. She huddled herself, desperate for warmth.

“Now, in the pool.”

“What? Oh no, please!”

“You heard Hawk; you naked savages stink. And you played with a naked savage last night, didn’t you. Get in the pool!” I waved the spear at her.

She tiptoed down the steps, and almost put a foot in the water. She hesitated, looking back at me.

“In!” I said. She turned away, but she still hesitated, so I pushed her in with the spear butt. It was a lovely splash. When she surfaced again she was almost too chilled to breathe; but she flailed her arms around, wide-eyed and gasping, and tumbling back under water again and again. I let her flail for a minute or so.

“Excellent. That will do!” I said, but she was past hearing me. I grabbed her hair and steered her to the steps. She slipped once, jarring herself quite badly, but I took no notice.

“Now you can take the bucket of water in.”

The wind was on her back, so it wasn’t too bad, and it was only twenty steps to the wall, fifteen to the door and inside. She put the bucket down and turned to me.

“Please let me go to the fire and get warm!”

“Stack,” I called, “may this savage come close to the fire? She says she’s cold.”

Stack turned, and saw her dripping and blue. “Oh, her.” He grinned. “What did you do – empty the bucket over her?”

“No, sent her swimming. It’s easily wide and deep enough. I thought you’d like it; she’s one of your two friends from last night. She can warm herself, can’t she?” I nodded at him, behind her back.

“OK, she can get warm.” The girl ran to the fire, Stack’s eyes following her. “Where’s the other one? Ah, there you are, my girl,” he went on.

His other tormentor shrank back.

“You can come for a swim, too. Oh don’t be so scared – I promise, if you do as you’re told I mightn’t even touch you. Go on!”

“Don’t touch her!” I said quietly to him.

“I won’t.”

The second eldest lad was watching. He bit his lip, and walked up to me.

“The animals need seeing to. They’ll die if they ben’t fed nor watered.”

“Can you do it by yourself?”

“Yes.” He sounded surprised. “I’ll touch not my father or my brother, I swear.”

“Then do it. But,” I called after him, “put on your clothes and a cloak. And those leather things for your feet.”

“Shoes.”

“Put them on too. You’ll catch your death of cold out there.”

He raised an eyebrow, glanced at his sister, and then dressed and went out.

Stack came back nearly ten minutes later, shepherding the girl in front of him; she was even bluer than her sister, she was whimpering, and she was carrying a stack of sheets of ice in her arms.

“You see? Never touched her, not even with a spearbutt.” And he was proud of it, said his tone of voice. He waved at the girl. “Put the ice in that other bucket, sweetie, and then you can go and get warm like your sister.”

At last, I’d managed to get something right.

We ate breakfast, prepared by the lady of the house and served again by her two daughters, and we did not leave any for anyone else. We finished just as the lad came back from seeing to the animals.

When our food had settled, I had to deal with my patients. Stack fetched them in. Young Paedr was grey with pain and lack of sleep, and filthy and stinking from head to foot; we parked him in a far corner for the moment. Old Paedr was looking much better. I undid the bandage. I was pleased; nearly all the infection had died down, and the wound had even begun to want to close. I cleaned it out, salved it and bandaged it. At least my salves are the best, even if I am a useless shaman in everything else.

“If you treat it properly, it should be closed in a week, and healed in a month,” I said.

He said nothing.

“Fine,” I said, “I’m not expecting gratitude. But keep it clean, don’t let it close completely until there’s no more pus, and keep working a little of this salve in twice a day until it is completely closed.”

He still said nothing, but his wife snatched the jar from my hand, as if to throw it away. A daughter snatched it from her.

“But that is wonderful, Da. She’s done in one day what we’ve done not in one month!”

“I’m sorry to interrupt this charming domestic scene,” said Hawk, “but we still have the question: what do we do with these naked savages?” He arranged the chairs into formality again, and sat down.

This should be interesting, I thought. How is he proposing to get out of this?

Hawk put on his Chief voice. “Firstly, there are some personal scores to settle. Stack, do you feel that those two young ladies have been sufficiently punished?”

“No, I think they should go for another swim,” he said, watching them suddenly hug each other in fear. Then he caught my eye. “But I’m feeling forgiving – I’ll let them off this once.”

“And Seer – what about this little turd?” Young Paedr had fallen asleep; Stack kicked him awake.

“He had an interesting night,” I said, “even after the antidote took hold. I’m happy to call it quits.” The poison would still have been giving him occasional cramps, and the ‘antidote’ would have kept him awake all night with diarrhoea – he had obviously been lying in it. I don’t suppose the sheep were good companions. I imagine he would have a massive dehydration headache, too. We’d given him a mouthful of water when he was brought in, but he would have needed a lot more. And he was going to have to go for a swim at some point, just to clean himself up. Yes, I was happy to call it quits.

“Very well,” Hawk stared at old Paedr, “but what do we do with you?”

The venom in his voice startled me. There was something here I hadn’t expected. Again.

“Now had we remained the naked savages you said we were,” continued Hawk, “we would have simply taken what we thought we could use and walked out. As it is, you have shown us what civilised, humane people would do: sell you as slaves. Though I’m not sure we could manage to sell all of you.”

“They were going to sell three of us,” said Stack, “so we should sell three of them.” He looked at the two girls.

“That makes sense,” said Hawk. “Perhaps the Spirits could advise us on which three?”

I didn’t like this. Keeping captives as slaves is one thing; selling slaves is something entirely different. I don’t know why; I can’t justify it; it just is. But the main thing was, I was seeing a different side of Hawk’s character, and not one I liked.

“If you are happy for our names to be included as well,” I answered, “the Spirits will be happy to advise you.” I let that sink in. “They may advise you, but they will not take your responsibility. You are the Chief, Hawk.”

“Yes, Seer, I am the Chief, now.”

And that last phrase at last told me what was happening. Hawk wasn’t seeing old Paedr, he was seeing his own father; and all the pent-up resentment, hatred, shame and anger was pouring out of him. What he really wanted was to beat old Paedr to a pulp – to beat his own father to a pulp.

And he wasn’t thinking about how to leave the place – he wasn’t thinking at all.

But if I let him, if he killed old Paedr, what then? Might not Hawk be scarred even worse? He wouldn’t have discharged his anger because it wasn’t really his father; he would have killed an – in this respect – innocent man, but he would feel the guilt of killing his father. I didn’t know; but surely there was a danger of it twisting him up for life.

No, I didn’t know what to do. The best I could do was delay things, slow things down until I could come up with an idea. And the only way I could think of doing that was to waffle.

“But there is another little matter that a Chief will be considering,” I went on. “In all the hours since we took over, we have not heard one word of apology from anyone for how we were treated. We have had protests, shame, begging for mercy, sulky obedience, but not one has ever said sorry. We should not let them leave our hands until they acknowledge that the fault was theirs – not just weakness in letting us escape, but fault in trying to enslave us in the first place. Where was hospitality? Where was the welcome to the stranger? No one has ever said sorry.”

Nor has your father ever said sorry to you, Hawk.

“Apologise to naked savages? I’ll see you in hell first!” shouted old Paedr. “You think you’re all high and mighty, dressed in our clothes, but it’s still you that’s the naked savages and us that’s civilised, and nothing you can do ever will change that! You think that grovelling to your Spirits can make you our equals? There are no Spirits, and never will you be our equals. Apologise to you? Apologise to two brainless thugs and a witchdoctor, to subhumans, to under-men? Get back up your trees, you rats!”

That was Paedr’s death, and every soul in that room that understood him knew it. The whole air filled with silence.

Hawk was white – dead white. He opened his mouth.

And then that little Geivin, that blasted pupil of mine, he stood up and ran in front of Hawk.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We treated you not right. I’m sorry. If you want to sell me into slavery you can.”

He caught my eye, and I managed a watery smile. Oh Geivin, why did you listen to me?

Now wouldn’t it have been nice if one by one everyone else had followed his lead, had come forward and said sorry? Wouldn’t that have been brilliant?

Fat chance.

Only the wife came forward. “You are right, we treated you not as proper human beings,” she said.

Everyone stared at her.

“And that is because you ben’t proper human beings. My Paedr’s right; you’re scum, and everything you’ve done in this house has shown it. You stole our clothes, but you wear them as if you should be naked. You make us go naked, and we do it as if we should be clothed. You prance around like cocks on a dunghill, and you know not what to do with your pathetic little power – power just of force and lies and trickery. Prance all you like; we’re your betters, and we always will be – as you will always be naked savages!”

She spat in Hawk’s face. He wiped it off with his sleeve.

And now he would kill both the father and the mother – he had to; which would be the same as killing the whole family, right down to the toddlers and the baby. I don’t kill babies – well, actually, I do, when I have to, but not like this. This is murder.

At least she’d given me time to see what I had to do – what my dear little pupil had forced me into. This was all Geivin’s fault; if he hadn’t spoken I would never have seen any way out, and even if they’d all died I wouldn’t have had children’s blood on my hands. Now I had no choice.

“There is one person,” I went on, before Hawk could speak, “one person in particular who should have said sorry.” I paused for effect. “Me.” I stood up and walked to old Paedr. “I am sorry. We killed your sheep. We stole your meat and your skins. We trespassed on your land. I am sorry.” He slapped my face. I was expecting it; I could ignore it.

“When you brought us here, we made no attempt to apologise, let alone make proper restitution. I am sorry.” He slapped my face again.

“And when instead of accepting our punishment we rebelled, we mistreated you, stole your food, stole your clothes. At least I can return those.” I took off my beautiful dress and my lovely soft shift, folded them, and gave them back to their owner. She didn’t know what to do with them; in the end she laid them on the cloaks.

“You are right,” I said, “we are nothing but naked savages, and your wife is right, we’ve proved it every step of the way. I’m sorry.”

I held my breath. This all hung on two questions: was this man truly a Chief? Was he a good enough Chief to think even through his emotions? I thought yes and yes, but I didn’t know; if I was wrong, the family was dead.

He stared me in the face – which was good; he paused – which was better; he lifted his hand to slap my face again, and lowered it. At that moment I knew I’d won.

“Na, na, na, na! You may be a naked savage girl, but you’ve got more balls than either of those two – more than any of my sons.” He held out his hand; I put mine palm to palm with his; for one moment he seemed surprised, then he took hold of my hand and shook it up and down. OK, different needles, different stitches, as they say. We understood each other, and that was what mattered. “Chrai, your old dress and shift are still in the chest, ben’t they? Go and get them.”

“You’re never going to –”

“Shut up, wife. This goes as I choose, for once. Get them, Chrai.”

Yes, I was right; he understood what I was doing. Of course, he was lying through his teeth; but he understood he’d put his family in danger by his outburst, and I was offering a way out. It was worth a lie. And now he’d claim that the clothes were to say sorry, when they would actually say thank you.

The girl whose dress I’d been wearing ran off. She came back with a dress and a shift, neatly folded and smelling of thyme, rue and bugbane.

“Give them to the shaman, here. They’ll be a better fit than the ones she’s been wearing, I reckon.” They were; and even more, they outlined and emphasised what bust I had. Stones, I felt so good!

“These are to say sorry,” he went on. “We treated you not as thieves, we treated you not as guests. We should have hanged you or welcomed you.”

Perfect. We’ll be able to get away, nobody will lose face, nobody will get killed, he’ll be able to tell everyone how he tricked those naked savages into leaving peacefully, and even though we’ll never see them again we’ll become his tribe’s enemy. Perfect.

Then I saw Hawk’s face. Well, that was to be expected. No shaman ever gets gratitude from her Chief, and rarely enough from anyone else. That I had learned, and a long time ago.

Hawk and I didn’t exchange one word until we were on the road.

When we left, it was just after noon, Geivin kissed me, the other children hid, the dogs barked, the woman ignored us, old Paedr watched us go with his hands on his hips, and young Paedr vomited. All as expected. I didn’t care. We walked away from the house with our packs full of food and wearing real clothes under our cloaks. I felt as warm as if I was in a tent, and rich and sexy in my new dress.

As soon as we were out of sight of the farm, Hawk stopped. “They’ve seen which way we left, and they know where we were going. They could pass the word on and have us ambushed. We need to turn back up through the woods.”

“But won’t that take us back north?” I said.

He marched away into the trees before I’d finished speaking.

Oh dear.

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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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