We woke at dawn, but by the time we’d cleaned ourselves up and dried off the cloak and Geivin had thrown a tantrum and then had a big weep on my bosom, and I’d salved those cuts which still needed it, it was later than would have been perfect. And it was a bright, clear day in which you could see a mouse at a thousand paces. Just when we wanted rain or fog or dark cloud. Great.
Stack organised us – it was his right as Champion – and so we packed away our clothes and smeared mud on our skins, not in solid areas but in stripes and spots, hunter fashion. I did Geivin – I didn’t quite like the idea of mud in the open weals, and I didn’t trust anyone else to be careful. Then I reminded Geivin that this was for real and he could get hanged if he made the slightest noise, and we crept off.
Stack scouted in front, Hawk well behind him, Geivin and I at the back. Stack led us a little above the valley bottom, on the side opposite the village, so when we found the stream we were almost a tent-height above it.
Stack nudged us and gestured silence, but he didn’t need to. Even I could see the thin spiral of smoke just where the stream disappeared off the shelf.
Stack and Hawk whispered in each other’s ears, Stack pointed to a buzzard floating across the valley, and slithered away into the undergrowth. Hawk caught my eye, then led us up the valley side, one step at a time, until the slope began to level off. There we sat under a hazel thicket. Hawk’s lips were moving rhythmically, and he was counting something on his fingers – minutes, presumably, because when the last finger went down he stood up and gave very creditable imitation of a buzzard’s mew. He stayed standing for ten seconds or so, and then he sat down and began counting all over again. Seven times he did this without any visible effect, but the eighth time another buzzard call floated out from somewhere below us. A minute or so later Hawk repeated his mew, and almost at once Stack crawled out from the thicket below us and joined us under the hazels.
“Three,” he whispered. “Their camp is crude, they’ve been there all night, they’re cold and wet, they’ve hardly slept, they’re just about to give up and go home. But there’s another camp further along, where the slope on this side fades out. It’s four people, it controls this valley, and it’s got a brilliant view of the ford and all the land around it. And one of them had arrows in a thing on his – maybe her – back, and a thing which must be a bow in her hand.”
“A woman brave?” Hawk’s eyebrows were almost in his scalp.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said, “She’s not fighting face to face. But I’ve heard tales of tribes with bows where the men do the hard fighting, face to face, but the women do the distant stuff with bows and arrows.”
“Shh!” Stack waved at us. “Anyway, two – I mean three – against four; not good odds.”
“Can we slip past?” Hawk’s voice was no more than a breath.
“We hunters might. A shaman – I doubt it, and not with a child.”
There was a long, long, long silence.
“Shamans aren’t tattooed,” whispered Stack.
We looked at him.
“If Seer put her dress on and washed her hands and face, who’s to say she’s Tent Folk?”
“And she could take Geivin. He looks right too.” Hawk nodded. “Easy. Let’s do it.”
Easy – when someone else has to do it.
So, twenty minutes later a clean and dressed – though slightly creased – young lady strolled toward the camp with her little boy.
“Hello,” I chattered. “Not in your way, am I? I just need to gather some pennywort. And I think I saw some lady’s mantle – Yes! I did! Look, over there! Oh now that’s good. Now I won’t trouble you any further. You’re after partridges, I suppose, are you? Good luck!” And having scared off every partridge for a thousand paces I drifted off down the ridge. Hawk was right; it was easy.
But my hunters’ task was not. The ridge was bare for a couple of paces either side where it left the hill, but the bare patch spread downhill; at the ford it was a good fifteen or twenty paces wide each side. Even hunters couldn’t hide there. I saw Hawk and Stack break cover and run for the ford in front of me as I heard shouts behind. I paused. The four watchers came running past me – it was still eighty paces or so to the ford – and ran on, waving spears; but the woman with the bow stopped twenty paces in front of me.
I ran up to her. “Look!” I said grabbing her arm just as she was going to shoot. “It’s those savages everyone’s talking about! Look! Look!” I shook her arm to make my point. “They’re getting away! Do something!”
“I would if you’d let me!” she snapped – with really quite uncalled for rudeness, I thought, and picked up her arrow again out of some brambles.
“But I’ve got to go that way!” I wailed, and grabbed her arm again. “What if they’re hiding down there!”
“Oh – go round through the town, woman!” she snapped, and this time managed to evade my ever-clutching hand.
“Oh, yes! That’s a good idea! Yes, I’ll do that at once!” and, satisfied that Hawk and Stack were safe from arrows I trotted back up the track and through the watchers’ camp. I picked up their packs, hid in a nearby thicket, removed all the contents – I didn’t have time to pick and choose – filled them again with leaves and stones and returned the packs to the camp. Every little helps.
Once I was hidden again I went through my spoils; warm overclothes and dry bread mostly, a little packet of herbs I recognised – somebody had skin trouble – and a heavy bar of waxy stuff that I didn’t recognise.
“What’s this?” I spoke aloud by accident.
“Soap,” whispered Geivin. “That’s soap. Everyb–”
“–body knows that,” I interrupted. “What’s it for?”
“You rub it on wet when you want something really clean. Hot water’s best. It’s ex-pen-sive, so you must be careful to use not too much and you must leave it never ever in the water.”
“OK.” Something else I’ve learned. “Let’s try it on your tunic.”
It worked. Amazingly. But it smelt awful until I’d rinsed all the soap out again. What is soap made of: year-old dead crows?
Then we walked back through the town. It was almost empty, and felt depressed; the scars and debris of market day showed wherever you looked. We crossed the Town Ford without difficulty; the water was fast, but it didn’t even come up to my ankles. We came to a crossroads and turned right, eastwards, and a thousand leisurely paces took us to the other end of the Slapford. And trouble.
Two lads and an older man were standing there, staring intently out at the ford. I didn’t need to look to guess what they were staring at. At the other end of the ford I could see another knot of figures, including the woman whose aim I had sabotaged earlier. And I could see the sun glinting off the flint of her arrow tip.
The ford itself was double; a wide shallow ridge ran out from my archer friend’s feet and swung out left to a long thin island in the river, and a second ridge on the same line swung back to run into the bank twenty paces or so away from me. The ridges seemed to be made of huge slabs of stone, either just washed over by the river or just clear of it. A beetle couldn’t cross either ford without being seen.
OK, nothing of interest there. It was the island that mattered.
The island was flat and gravelly, and thick with brushwood and stunted trees; but where the fords met it, there was a rocky outcrop, almost a hill, twice man height, with almost nothing growing on it.
Where were they? On the hill or in the brush? If they were still hoping to cross, they’d be on the hill – why climb down and up again – and being stupid. There was no way they could get across those open sheets of rock and live. But if they were looking for another way out, they should be down in the brushwood and hoping to slip out underwater. Or something. So where were they?
I strolled over to the watchers at this end of the ford, holding Geivin’s hand very tightly.
“Hello,” I said, in a voice that could split stone. “Something to watch?”
The men winced, and one of the lads turned to look at me. “Savages,” he whispered. “Have you heard, they’ve been called for a hundred!”
“Yes!” I almost shrieked. “A hundred! Where are they? Have you got them yet?”
The older man turned, his face angry. “Keep your voice down, wo– Just a minute, don’t I know you? You were selling salves at market yesterday. Savage Secrets, or something.”
“Secrets of the Savages, yes. Did you buy something – I don’t…”
“No, but Ek did, and it’s done his chilblains a world of good, he says.”
The third lad nudged him “There!” He whispered, pointing to the island. “I told you! Behind the slab with the heather on it. See!”
And I could see. A fringe of black hair and the tip of a spear. They were on the hill. They were getting it wrong – but how to tell them?
“Yes, yes!” I screeched. “There they are! Can you get them from here?”
“Oh, shut up, will you!” said the older man, looking out at the hill. One of the lads turned to watch as well, but the other was still facing me – with his eyes dropped. For one moment I thought he was trying to say something but was too shy – and then I realised: he was looking at my breasts!
This was a first for me, and it was a shock. A dozen different emotions zipped into me and began to fight each other. For a moment I let them, and then I managed to pull myself together; I would need to handle this sometime, but not now. Now I should use it, like a shaman.
Like a real shaman.
I pushed my shoulders back ever so slightly, and his eyes swelled like bubbles in a midden. I looked at his eyes, and dragged them up with mine.
“Maybe I can help,” I said. “I lived with these people for a year. I know how their minds work.” I smiled. Sweetly.
“That’s a good idea!” exclaimed my victim. The older man hushed at him, but then stepped back. The man’s glance started flicking to me briefly, while keeping most of his mind on Hawk and Stack. I turned towards him, snipping off the eyeline of my admirer in the process. Always leave them wanting more. Though I felt happier not being stared at, for the moment anyway.
“Well, woman, how do they think?” he snapped.
“Very simply,” I replied. “Everything about them is simple.” An idea came to me. “Even their music is simple!”
“Their music? What do you mean, their music?”
I slipped my pack off my shoulders and took out a finger-whistle. “Like this,” I said, and started to play the old baby song ‘Come down the tree, said the fox.’ I thought it might trigger an idea in my boys’ heads.
- “Come down the tree,” said the fox
- “No,” said the squirrel, “I will not.”
- “I’ve got nuts, I’ve got berries,
- I’ve got hips and haws and cherries,
- Come down the tree,” said the fox.
At least I didn’t have to do the actions!
When I’d finished a verse, the man nodded. “Yes, I see. Very simple. So how are they thinking now?”
“I assume they’ll’ve realised there’s no escape, not with you three at this end and those four across there. Where else can they go? So now they’ll be working up their courage,” I answered. “The only idea they’ll have left is to charge full tilt – anything else they’d see as cowardice and cowardice is the worst crime they can commit. But they’ll need quite a bit of courage to charge across that ford. They might try to sling stones at you, hoping to scare you a bit before they charge, but otherwise they’ll just suddenly burst out and come dashing at you through the water, howling out their warcry. They won’t expect to survive. They’ll mostly be wanting to take one of you with them, to prove to their ancestors that they weren’t cowards.”
“So they’re just working up their courage?” The man stared out at the island even more intensely.
“If they’ve given up hope of getting away. That and choosing which of you to go for. They’ll probably choose you, actually.”
He looked at me properly for the first time. “Why?”
“I would guess that these two lads here won’t look man enough to them to count as full braves.” The two lads gasped and one of them said something, but I ignored them. “They are hunters, you see, that’s what they call boys in the tribes,” I went on. “Two hunters match one brave, like you; but two hunters against one is dishonourable, and they will probably class these lads as mere hunters.” I paused to let things sink in. “Perhaps me and the kid, we’ll just move well away before anything happens. We’re probably holding them up anyway; they won’t charge while women are here.”
“He ben't your son?” asked the third lad – so he had a voice, then.
“No, just a kid I’m looking after for the day.” I answered lightly, but I felt Geivin’s hand tighten on mine. Ah.
“Good luck,” I called over my shoulder, turning away from a certain boy’s eyeline, and we moved back up to the crossroads.
Considering the state of my emotions, I felt I’d done pretty well.
I was right, too, which was a nice change. As Geivin and I stood there, a little above the action, I saw one or two of the bushes on the island begin to sway and shift, and once I got a glimpse of black hair. They’d taken my hint, then. I – we – began strolling along the path following the river.
You’d think I’d’ve felt more grown-up, wouldn’t you, now I’d realised I was becoming sexy. I didn’t. I felt like a little girl – a little girl going to her first Suncrown Feast. Nervous, excited, and very vulnerable; terrified of getting it all wrong.
Never mind. There were other problems to face.
“Geivin,” I said.
There was no answer, just a little sniff.
“Geivin,” I said, and I crouched down to his level. “Do you understand why I said you weren’t anything to do with me?”
He looked down, still sniffing. I let go of his hand so that I could be right in front of him.
“First,” I said, “I wanted to mislead those men. They were our enemies. Any lies we can make them believe will be to our good.”
The sniffing stopped, but the eyes stayed down.
“But there’s something more important, something you have to understand.” I paused to try to get the words right, but then the eyes went even further down, so I pushed on. “You know the Spirits. And you know that – although we all think you should be in our Tribe, you aren’t yet.” I paused and pick up both his hands. “You do know that, don’t you.”
There was a pause, and finally a nod.
“But in the end, the decision has to be made by the Spirits. What they say goes. And they can still say no.” I held his hands tighter. “And the one thing you mustn’t do with the Spirits is tell them what to do. You must never take them for granted. I can’t – Hawk and Stack can’t – none of us can decide whether you will join our Tribe. Only the Spirits will. I believe they will say yes, and you believe they will say yes, but we can’t tell them to say yes. Understand?”
There was a little nod. A very little nod.
“And if I’d said to those bad people that you were my son, or my brother, or something, I might have seemed as though I was taking the Spirits for granted. That I was assuming they’d say yes. Do you see?”
The nod was bigger.
“And I really want them to say yes. I don’t want to take any risks. I really want them to say yes.”
He looked up at last, through very watery eyes. Then he hugged me for a bit, and I hugged him back. Then we went on.