We walked on quite slowly, even for Geivin; it meant I could watch what was going on without being too obvious about it and without tripping over my own feet. As I watched, the little movements on the island worked along almost to the tip. Then they stopped.
I didn’t want to stop and wait, because we weren’t out of sight of the enemy, but I slowed down even more. I wondered what to do, whether I could help. But how?
A hundred or so paces further on, there was a little boat moored against the bank. This was my opportunity: all I needed to do was untie the boat and paddle it out to the tip of the island and pick up Hawk and Stack. No problem.
Except I had been in a boat before, and I had tried to paddle a boat before. I don’t want to overstress the details, but let’s just say I was very glad my cousin could swim. I learned my limits, that day. Never again, I’d said.
When we got closer, though, I realised there was something odd about the boat. It wasn’t moored with a line tied to it; instead a rope went from a post on the bank and through a big wooden hoop at the back of the boat. Weird.
I nudged Geivin. “D’you know anything about that boat?”
“Yes of course. That’s Oan’s Ferry. We cross there when we – I mean – we used to cross there when we visited Uncle Chaig. I – we –” and he started to snivel again.
“What’s a ferry?”
“You use it to cross the river without the girls getting their good shoes wet. It’s a boat. There’s a rope across the river, and it goes through the end of the boat, and you just pull yourself along the rope. You can get it not wrong, you have not to paddle or anything, and if you’re good and sit down properly you can tip it not over or fall out. Then you give the ferryman one ring for two grownups, and one ring for three children.”
A boat that keeps you dry, that you don’t paddle and can’t fall out of! MY sort of boat!
I hurried us down to the boat, and the ferryman appeared magically beside it with his hand held out. I dropped a chain into it and began an explanation, but he just grunted and turned away. I got into the boat (again, I gloss over a few details here) and Geivin sat down in the end bit, steadying things until I’d stopped panicking – I mean, until I had worked out how the ferry worked.
It wasn’t so difficult once we’d pushed off the bank. There was a pole to push with or you could simply pull yourself hand over hand along the rope. Since the pole was twice my height at least I went for the hand over hand approach, until I realised it meant standing up, and that when I pulled on the rope the boat wobbled. I sat down quickly, and chose the pole instead.
By now I’d spotted two black, shapeless lumps drifting down the current. I deduced that they’d emptied their packs and were using them to protect their heads; goodness, they’ve shown some intelligence at last! It was easy to get the boat in their way, easy to grab them, and then a lot harder to convince them that I was not an enemy. But we managed, and only got the boat half full of water in the process.
But when we'd all settled down, there was a definite atmosphere in the boat.
“Right,” I said, trying to be bright and positive, “which side? South or north?”
Stack shrugged, staring upriver, but Hawk was too busy trailing his hand in the water on the downriver side.
Presumably there had been some... very open discussion during their island stay. Well, it was time they got over it.
“SOUTH OR NORTH? Come on, we’ve paid a chain for this, we may as well use it.”
That got Hawk’s attention. “A chain? What for?”
“To pick you two fish out of the river, of course. Were you expecting to drown?”
Hawk waved a casual hand - throwing cold drips on my face. “Oh, we’d’ve got to shore somewhere fairly soon anyway.”
Stack sniffed so hard he shook the boat. I agreed with him, frankly. Up to a point.
“Well, thank you very much!" I exclaimed. "Next time I’ll just leave you to swim! You ungrateful pair of useless, loud-mouthed useless – oh, I don’t know what you are!”
They may have intended to look at each other, but if so they missed. I was not pleased either way.
“And if you shrug your shoulders and say ‘Girls!’ once more,” I shouted, “I’ll drown you myself !”
Geivin’s hand sneaked into mine. He may have thought it would help. It didn’t.
“You were stuck on that rock like steaks on a griddle! You were just going to sit there till they shot you! You call yourselves hunters! I got you off! I got you safe! And all you can do is shrug your shoulders at me!”
I’ll miss out the next few minutes. They weren’t pretty.
We got to the north shore in the end, in dead silence. The rain started as we did; icy rain that bit you as it landed. It fitted the mood.
There was no sign of the ferryman. Stack pulled the boat up the sloping bank, and then we walked, in silent file, along the ferry track to the main path. We turned east. The rain grew warmer and softer; my clothes were heavy and dragging at me, so I bundled them into my pack. As I did, I glanced down at my breasts; they were bigger than I’d thought. And now I looked, there were other things too – just little changes of proportion, nothing major, but I was growing up. I would soon be a woman.
The woods closed around us, welcoming us. The tension slowly lifted, and the boys even occasionally spoke at each other. But not to me. No problem; that was how I wanted it, just then.
There was a steep slope up to our left, but to our right the river valley was flat marshland almost to the path. We even caught the odd glimpse of the river through the reeds. I expected my boys to want to stop to hunt – there were some especially tempting duck – but they just marched on.
“Geivin’s getting tired,” I said.
Stack shrugged, stopped and lifted him piggyback onto his shoulders. We walked on.
At length the slope to our right began to flatten, and almost at the same time the path began to climb away from the river. Suddenly we stopped.
“I think we need our own camp,” said Hawk, apparently addressing a large oak tree.
“It’s only just after noon,” said Stack to a hazel bush.
“Obviously I don’t mean a travelling camp. I mean a proper winter camp.”
There was another long silence. Then suddenly Geivin started screaming.
“You’re horrid, you’re horrid, you’re all horrid!” he shrieked, and began pummelling Stack’s scalp with his fists. Stack dropped him, and Geivin went into a full tantrum, flat on his back, legs pumping the air, arms rigid, and screaming at the top of his voice. We all stood round looking shamefaced. I at least had absolutely no idea what to do and only the vaguest idea why it was happening, and I didn’t believe the boys knew more than me.
At last the tantrum faded, and Geivin started ranting at us about being horrid, and why weren’t everyone speaking, and we were just like his family and we were a tribe we should be different and if we… Anyway, he went on at us for a bit, and eventually ran down into snivelling.
I picked him up and cuddled him, as snot dribbled down my shoulder-blade.
It broke the ice, though.
“You mean a permanent camp,” I said. “We give up on getting back for Nightwatch, and stay here for the winter?”
“Well, at least give ourselves the option. If we could set up a good camp now, we can always go on if the weather lets us."
"It’s much colder here than in Longwood, we’ve had snow once already, and we’re five or six days away from Longwood lands and through dangerous country," agreed Stack. "We should establish a proper camp, warm and defensible.”
“And it’s in easy reach of Brothy, so I can take my salves there on market days,” I added.
“I still don’t see why you have to sell things if people will just give you rings if you ask them,” muttered Stack.
“We’re not beggars!” Geivin stared up at Stack, earnestness in every line of his face. “Beggars are bad people. We give not rings to beggars, even we talk not to them, and we will beg never ever ourselves!”
“But why not?”
I’d been thinking about this too, and I reckoned I’d worked it out.
“Look,” I said, “how do you become a hunter?”
“When you can reach the point of the Chief’s spear, sling a shot from the Chief’s chair through the tent door opposite, and when you can keep silence for one filling of a lamp bowl.” Stack’s voice was puzzled.
“And after you become a hunter, you’re expected to be brave, and honourable, and loyal, aren’t you?”
“But before then, you aren’t expected to be brave, are you? Nobody’s surprised if a little kid runs away or cheats or steals.”
“No, They’re too young to understand.”
“Well, we’re like that in this world. We’re kids. We’re too young to understand what’s honourable and what isn’t. We need to listen to Geivin here, who is old enough to understand, even if he can’t explain it properly.”
“And if he says begging is dishonourable, then begging is dishonourable. Yes?”
Stack shrugged again.
“Yes?” I insisted.
“Yes, I suppose.”
“Right. And that’s why we need to be near Brothy so that I can sell my salves and you can sell your hides. But not to beg.”
Stack shrugged, and turned to Hawk. “And there might be somewhere up this path?” He pointed to our left. I couldn’t see any path, but they were the hunters; it was their job to see these things.
“It might lead somewhere, and it’s not been used for years. Yes?” Hawk glanced at both of us.
“Yes,” said Stack.
“Yes,” I said.
Once we were through the thick stuff by the track even I could see the shadow of a path. It climbed up and a little back, so we were above the track we’d just been walking on. Then the bushes thickened across our path, and we pushed through to the dead buildings of a lost farm.