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We faced off, Old Paedr and us, a spearlength apart. Suddenly we were very lonely; the crowd vanished, leaving just three worried-looking stallkeepers who couldn’t get away, and even they were trying to hide behind their ponies.

Nobody spoke.

Old Paedr had a gaggle of his kids with him – not including Young Paedr – and they were all trying to get behind his back. He himself planted his feet wide and firm, and stared at Hawk. I pulled my eyes away – it’s a shaman’s job to look where I’m not supposed to – and noticed the rope Old Paedr was holding. There was no sign of a dog; what was it tied to?

And nobody spoke.

At last Old Paedr spoke. “Well, if it ben’t my recent guests! Daring to show your face in a civilised town? Of course, you think our clothes will disguise you! Or are your Spirits guarding you, d’you think?” He laughed.

“Is your arm healing well?” I enquired sweetly.

Old Paedr frowned. “Yes, damn you, it’s healing, I grant you that.”

“And your son is fully recovered from his sickness? Your daughters, too, have had no ill effects, I trust?” added Hawk.

Old Paedr appeared to execute a controlled explosion. “You think yourselves so high and mighty, so civilised, just because you got lucky, but thieves you were and thieves you are, the lot of you. And so is this brat you’ve corrupted – just a thief and a savage, just like you!” He pulled viciously on the rope, and little Geivin swung in front of him; the rope was tied tight round his waist, and there was a line of blood along it. As the kid swung round I saw he had blood on his tunic – stripes of blood all down the back.

“You’ve been beating him?” I hissed. “Why?” I was going to say more, but I didn’t trust my voice.

“To get the nonsense out of him! All this damned superstitious nonsense about Spirits that you’ve managed to infect him with!” Paedr swung Geivin round again, this time by one arm; the poor kid whimpered as the arm twisted. “The only way with superstition – beat it out of him. If that works not, beat him some more.”

“Until you kill him!” I was still fighting to keep control. “Is that what you’re going to do – kill your own son?”

“Tell me not what to do with my own!” he shouted. “He ben’t my son, no more. Here – take him, if you’re so worried. He ben’t my son, nomore!” Old Paedr was bright red in the face. He swung poor little Geivin around yet again, almost off the ground, and flung him against me. “Go on, take him – I only brought him here to see if there was anyone who’d take him off my hands.” He flung the rope in my face. “I was hoping for some gold for him – but I care not that much, as long as I’m rid of him! Now you can sell him for dog food instead – look how generous I am!” He turned and walked off, the rest of his family following disconsolately in his wake. Then suddenly he turned back. “And if I see you in this town after today, I’ll have you hanged for theft and banditry – I swear I will. The brat as well.” He turned away again, and the whole gang were lost in the crowd.

Geivin had his arms wrapped round my waist, his face buried in my dress, and was weeping his poor little heart out. I had every sympathy.

Hawk looked quickly round. “Look – over beyond the pigs, there’s a quiet area by the river. Let’s go over there.”

It was quiet; the river bank was more than a man height above the water, and was broken by landslips. We easily found a hidden nook among the bushes, under the bank.

“D’you suppose he meant it?” asked Hawk. “Really giving away… giving away his own son?”

Hello, I thought: it’s touched a nerve in Hawk. I need to tread carefully.

“It may be a trap,” Stack looked round for a last time and sat down. “He might be calling us child-stealers to whoever’s chief around here.”

I hadn’t thought of that; it sounded unpleasantly likely to me. I unwound Geivin’s arms, eased him away from my dress and untied the rope. “Did your father mean it?” I asked him. “Was he really going to sell you?”

He nodded, the tears still wetting his face, his nose running down to his mouth. “H-he said I was no s-son of his, if I believed in the Spirits. H-he said if he could beat it not out of me h-he w-wanted me not d-dirtying his house any more. He said he’d sell me for d-dog food if h-he could find no b-better!”

“Has he beaten you badly? Let me see. May I see under your tunic?”

Geivin nodded, and peeled off his tunic. There must have been a dozen weals across his back, some from a stick, some from a strap or a rope. There was blood on his breeches as well; he slowly and painfully eased them over his buttocks and down to the ground. There were so many weals that they overlapped, and I couldn’t be sure how many there were, but it was at the very least another twenty on his buttocks and the backs of his thighs. There were even weals across his belly and chest, across his upper arms, and one across the front of his thighs. On an eight-year-old boy. This was bad.

“His father meant it,” I said.

I worked for nearly an hour, easing blood-salves into the cuts and splits, smoothing blow-salves into the worst of the bruising, and stitching up the four worst cuts on his buttocks. He was too young to be overproud; he whimpered and cried out when I hurt him – but he never asked me to stop.

“You are a very brave boy,” I said.

“Yes,” said Stack. “You should be proud.”

“From Stack, that’s a compliment indeed,” I added. “Stack is our Champion because of his bravery. He knows what he’s talking about.”

Stack actually smiled – a very brief smile, but he did!

Geivin hugged me again, and then he stepped back. His lip was trembling, and he had an ‘I am trying to be brave’ face. “What a-are you going to do with me?” he asked. “Are you going to sell me f-for dog food?”

All three of us opened our mouths to say something, but he hurried on. “I-I mind not, honestly, b-because you’ve been kind to me, but I-I just wanted to…” His lip was threatening to tremble out of control.

I put my arms around him, as gently as possible, and trying to avoid the worst damage. “We are not going to sell you for dogfood,” I said. “We are not going to sell you at all. Are we?” I said to the others.

“No!” they both replied. Good boys.

“He’s clever, and he has information we can use, as well. He’s valuable now, and one day he’ll be more valuable still, even if his father…” Hawk’s voice tailed off.

“He’s brave, and faces danger bravely. He deserves to be in our Tribe,” added Stack.

Geivin looked round at us, a watery smile on his trembling lips. Then he ran forward and hugged Hawk’s legs. Hawk smiled, and hugged the boy’s head to him.

“Yes,” he said, “he deserves to be in our Tribe.”

Very neat. He might be only eight, but this kid was a master of moral blackmail. I was beginning to wonder whether I was going to regret this.

They untangled, and I looked into Geivin’s eyes. “Do you want to?” I asked him. “It’s your choice. We can sell you as a slave,” if only we knew how! I thought, “or we can take you back to your father and to your family, and I’m sure your father will have you back once his temper’s cooled down, or you can choose to join our Tribe, if the Chief here will let you – and I believe he will. What do you choose?”

“I want to be in your Tribe!” he exclaimed, and yet again his arms went round my dress.

I suddenly realised I didn’t know how to clean snivel off cloth. “OK,” I said. “Now come down to the river and wash your face, and I’ll have a go at your tunic.”

Twenty minutes later, we had a campfire going, well out of the town, grilling the last of the deer meat.

Hawk turned to Geivin. “Look, Geivin, there’s still things we need to do before you count as a proper Tribe member, but we can’t do them just now. But we need your help now. We’re from the south, from the Longwoods, and we don’t know how things are done here.”

Geivin looked surprised. “What d’you mean?” he sprayed through hot fat.

“Well,” I said, “for example, when we make a deal we hold out our hands and put one palm against the other. When your father pretended to make a deal with me he held my hand round the palm with his fingers. You do things differently, and we don’t always know how you do things.”

Hawk nodded. “And we don’t always know what is safe, with this place being so different. I mean, was your father bluffing when he said he could have us hanged? And I assume hanging kills you, does it?”

Geivin was wide-eyed. “Yes, of course you die; everybody knows that. They put a rope round your neck and pull you up off the ground. Your eyes pop out, your face goes red and then black, your tongue sticks out, and you – you…” I thought he was going to be sick, but he pulled himself together. “You jerk and dance on the end of the rope until you die.”

Stack was suddenly interested. “You’ve seen it?”

“Oh yes, lots of times. I can show you where they do it, if you like.”

“So he could get us hanged?” Hawk pulled us back to the essential point. Always the cautious one.

Geivin nodded. “Yes, but you’ll let him not, will you? And anyway they’d probably throw us out first.”

“Throw us out? Of the town?”

“Yes of course. Savages are supposed to be allowed not in Brothy, even on market day. Everybody knows that.” He looked up, biting his lip. “Sorry! Sorry! It just slipped out. I meant not that you, I mean…”

Hawk ruffled the lad’s hair. “That’s OK,” he said, “We’re getting used to it. But say Tent Folk instead, it sounds better.”

“Seer’s idea,” added Stack. Oh, someone remembered! That’s a first.

But that’s answered one of my questions: why hadn’t we known about it? Brothy’s only a week’s walk from the Longwoods, and just a few days from the Mistwaters. The Mistwaters probably did know, but knew they weren’t welcome, so they didn’t bother telling us. It hadn’t come up casually because our contacts with the other Tribes had dropped off, and that was because our Shaman wasn’t doing her job.

That was hard to say even to myself: my mother wasn’t doing her job. The Longwoods hadn’t had a proper shaman since my Nan died.

Would I ever be a proper shaman?

I needed to stop this. Get back to facts. “How often is market day?”

“There’s Little Market every seven days, but that’s nothing. Big Market is every fourth one. Everybody knows that. But they start again each quarter.”

“Start again? How d’you mean?”

“Well, they’re meant to be every new moon. But the Moon works not like that, exactly seven days, so every third full moon they put it right. Have you seen not the Heads?”

Five minutes later we were right at the far end of the glade – but Geivin informed us firmly that it’s not called a glade; it’s the Marketplace. Everybody knew that. There, one of the house walls was double height, and in front of it there was a wooden platform, man high, with a high fence running along each side; the front was open and had three ladders running up to it.

“See,” said Geivin, pointing. “That’s where they announce things from.”

As we stood there, a man in a fine blue coat with lots of gold on it climbed up a ladder onto the platform, and blew a horn.

“Hear this!” he shouted. “Hear this! Hear this!”

The crowds began to gather around, and he paused to let them settle.

“Hear this!” he called yet again. “The weight proving will take place at noon today. All weights used in this market from next market day onward must carry today’s mark, at risk of pillory.”

Geivin nudged us. “He’ll say that again in an hour’s time, and again after that.”

“What’s pillory?” asked Stack.

“Oh that’s – er – well, do you–” but at that moment the loud man started up again.

“Hear this! Hear this! Hear this! Chaig Melfon has been duly proved before the mayor and shown to sell bread below proof weight, and shall either leave Brothy for ever or stand in the pillory for one hour. He has chosen the pillory.”

A big man, just wearing breeches, was led onto the platform and over to the fence at one side, There he was tied to the crossbar by his neck and both wrists. It wasn’t tight enough to strangle him, and he could kneel down so he wasn’t too bent over, but he wasn’t comfortable, and his wrists were well away from his face so he couldn’t even waft away the flies.

A shout went up from the crowd, and several lads began throwing rotten eggs and bits of squashed fruit at him. He didn’t look happy.

Geivin tugged my sleeve. “That’s pillory!” he said. “But d’you see the Heads on the wall?”

Above the platform there were indeed seven leather ovals, each with a face painted on it, all in a row.

“Seven, so next market day is in seven days. Come here tomorrow and there’ll be six heads, and the day after there’ll be five, and the –”

“Yes, yes. And each market day they put all seven back.”

“Except once a quarter, at the Full Moon market, they don’t. They wait until the real full moon, and then they put up the Heads. So it goes back into place.”

Hawk looked at me. “Is this making any sense to you, Seer?”

“Oh, yes.” This was proper shaman business; I understood very well. They would be a day and a half short every month; that’s four and a half every quarter. They’d need to correct it somehow, or else ignore the Moon altogether.

“Good. I’m glad someone does. We’d better move; someone might recognise Geivin here and start asking questions.”

We dragged Stack away with some difficulty, and found a quiet corner – yet again – to try and decide what to do.

“Can we buy a dozen of wet nellies?” asked Geivin. “Can we? Pleeease? Pleeeeease?”

“Mm,” I said. “Well, firstly, what are wet nellies, secondly, how do we buy, and thirdly, we haven’t anything to sell.”

Geivin very kindly and condescendingly proceeded to enlighten us.

For the record, wet nellies are breads soaked in honey – but everybody knows that; and you buy them by going up to the man and giving him a ring.

“A ring? Like this?”

“No of course not! A gold ring! From a chain!” He looked at our blank faces and sighed right from his toes. “You have a bit of caul with a gold ring threaded in it and another ring threaded on that and another ring threaded on that till you’ve got twelve rings in a chain.”

“But doesn’t it matter that they’re big rings or small?” Hawk looked completely lost.

Geivin did his sigh again. “They’re all the same size so the man can check if you’re cheating him. Everybody knows that. The rings are tiny, like… those.” He pointed to the little gold chains that I’d drooled over earlier.

I nodded. “But we still don’t have anything to sell, so we can’t get these rings to buy. And won’t the local chief throw us out if we start trading?”

Geivin looked at me as if I was stupid. Again. “You have to pay market toll of three rings, of course, if you’re trading in the Square. Everybody knows that! But,” he pointed to the part of the Square by the river. “There’s a special bit there, called the Freeland. You can trade there without toll, as long as you bring everything on your back and understand there ben’t any protection. A lot of people use it when they’ve only got a little bit to sell, that ben’t worth the toll. Specially women.”

“But we still don’t have anything to sell.”

“You can sell salves!” he said. “You’ve got lots, and you’ll sell them easy!”

Yeah, right. And as usual it’s the shaman who has to do the work.

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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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