It was a good two hours by Hawk’s route to where they’d seen the dust, and it was tricky ground, as well. We took it carefully, even though it was frost-dried to dust under the winter sun. A cold winter sun – fortunately we’d dressed ourselves up in case we needed to make an impression. And when we got there, it hardly seemed worth it.
“This can’t be Bulken, can it?” Hawk stared at the half-demolished houses and the tumbled walls.
I kicked at the barren, stony track. “May have been Bulken once, but…”
Stack stared along the track.
“Not safe. Could be anyone behind these walls, but not expecting us. Keep looking.”
We pushed on, but it got even odder. Suddenly the houses were almost gone –there was nothing but rottenstone, slots in the ground and square patches of nettles to show where they’d been. Yet there was even less vegetation; we were walking along a smooth strip on a wide flat shelf, on thick grey dust that muffled our footsteps to an eerie, dusty hiss. Soon we were covered in our own private clouds of grey dust.
And, at least in my case, a cloud of puzzlement.
Bulken was supposed to be a Town. Now, we’re not savages; we know what towns are; and this wasn’t it. There were no animals. There was no marketplace. Above all, there was nowhere for townsfolk to actually live. Perhaps it was a very small Town? Or perhaps there was more Town further along?
Then the shelf did a sharp right turn, almost into the hill, and widened out even further. The path vanished among heaps of stone, man-high, some blocks carefully stacked, some big lumps just piled any old how, some little more than gravel. The dust underfoot was even thicker, stirring in little swirls and waves, and blowing between us, so that sometimes we could see each other easily, and next moment we were alone. So it wasn’t surprising I lost the others; stupid, but not surprising.
“Ai, la’, loo’ ‘o’ ‘v go’ ‘er!”
I deduced this to mean “Hey lads, look what we’ve got here!” from the way half a dozen males gathered suddenly around me. Assorted ages, assorted heights, but all equally filthy, and all with the same throat-gagging stink.
“Gah! Whose chicken are you, girl?” This speaker apparently had more of his teeth left, so was easier to understand; but I’m giving you the edited version.
“I’m nobody’s chicken, thank you very much!”
“Well y’r ours now, girl!”
“So let’s see what we’ve got!” and a third lout pulled my dress up above my waist.
“Get lost!” I hoicked it back down again. It meant letting go of Whisper; I flicked him forwards, hoping he’d have the sense to run for it. He didn’t; he just stood there.
Meanwhile, the skirt hitcher was pouting. “Aw c’mon girlie! We c’n all have a bit of fun!”
“Not with me, you won’t!” Even though things weren’t going well, I wasn’t going to give in. You defeat yourself if you do.
Two arms wrapped round my waist and a blast of filthy breath hut the back of my neck. “What’s it matter, anyway! In a hundred years it’ll never’ve happened!”
“It’s not happening now!” I retorted, jabbing my fingernails deep into the backs of his hands and kicking the lout in front of me hard between the legs. That one doubled over – and then so did the next one as a stone ricocheted off his skull. Then more stones smashed in, knocking out a second yob, and the rest ran for it.
“Were you having trouble?” Hawk strolled up, Stack in tow.
“Where had you two got to?” I retorted. Whisper snuggled against me again.
“Weren’t sure what you were doing.” Stack was packing his sling away again. “Thought you were just talking.”
“Well I wasn’t! I was –” but then one body turned over, dragged himself to his feet, and pointed at Stack.
“We’ll fucking get you!” he shouted. “We know where you fucking are! We’ll get you fucking good! And we’ll fuck the lot of you!”
After which masterpiece of elegant speech he ran off.
The one left was stirring. Stack kicked him in the belly. He stirred a lot quicker. Hawk dragged him to his feet by his hair.
“Wern mlean’n no arlm,” he slurred, tongue lolling bloodily over his lower lip. Drool dripped off his chin.
“Tell me,” said Hawk, politely slapping his face, “is this Bulken?”
“Blulken? ‘Shnot Blulken! Blulken’s tlwo ‘oursh ‘way, on rliver. ‘Shnot Blulken.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“Collecn shtlone. Glov wanlts shom’t bluilt, we glet shtlone fr’m. Dlrag it all’th’way to Blulken shelves cosh Glov’s tloo fucln mlean to len -”
“Yes, yes. This Gov? He’s the chief at Bulken?”
He swallowed, and his tongue crawled back into his mouth. “The Governor. Yeh, course.”
“Then you’d better get on with it, hadn’t you!” and Hawk lammed him hard in the solar plexus, then as he doubled up Hawk got him another on the side of his head that knocked him two paces away. He half-scrambled, half-reeled away.
“Nothing more to do here, is there?” Hawk glanced round us all. “May as well get back.”
“Best take care, though.” Stack looked around. “We need to stay together.”
He was looking at me – as if it was all my fault!
But our friends did seem to have got some courage up; they had collected themselves into a group – a distant group, admittedly – and were staring at us.
“Time to go,” murmured Hawk. “Slowly and quietly.”
So we did – until we were out of sight. Then we ran.
“You’re fastest,” snapped Stack to Hawk. “Go on ahead just in case. I can look after these two.”
When we got back, Hawk was filling bags with slingable stones. I suppose I should’ve helped, but I was having problems of my own: I was glad the boys had rescued me, but on the other hand I resented needing them. I suppose normally girls just get angry; but I’m a shaman; I need to understand. And then I hadn’t really been frightened, of course; but I maybe had been a bit, well, unnerved. I needed just a bit of time to pull myself together, and I didn’t need the boys around while I did. I vanished into my house.
Unfortunately, it’s not just my house: I’ve adopted a son. But Whisper didn’t interfere. He just sat in a corner, quietly hugging his knees.
Too quietly, in retrospect, and I should have noticed. I didn’t. I was in the furthest corner, pretending to pick over some berries, but actually just letting myself relax, letting the fear fade – well, not really fear, just tension and nervousness. After all, it hadn’t been anything I couldn’t handle.
Eventually I pulled myself together. I shook a rattle in the four directions and the five, and sang the Song Of Encircling. Then I took up the Approach position – but almost at once I realised that that was the wrong road. I needed to dance.