The dancing floor was deserted when I started, though I was vaguely aware of something happening by the gate. But I had my own work to do.
I began to dance the – but that’s shaman’s business, choosing the right dance. But it wasn’t right; I didn’t seem to be getting what I expected, for once. Everything seemed a little closed, quiet, dead. Never mind; it happens.
When I finally gave up, I looked around, thinking of some of the questions. And I looked again at the camp protections Stack had nagged us all into building.
We had a clear perimeter with at least a shoulder high fence all round; the gateposts were trees joined by the split halves of a tree trunk lashed across them flat sides up at twice man height; woven hazel hurdles protected anyone standing up there. The gates themselves were huge wooden barriers bristling with spikes – and could easily be closed completely by two people.
Not bad in just a few weeks. Stack hadn’t done it all himself, of course, he’d had all of us helping. Even I’d helped a bit. And now, suddenly, I was wishing I’d helped a lot more. Funny how things change you. I mean, those men had been unpleasant, but I hadn’t come to any harm, not really, yet somehow I’d lost that sense of – of safeness. Even inside our camp.
In fact, it was even less safe outside than I thought.
Stack finished doing something to the top of the gateway and began climbing down. But before he’d even let go of the crossbeam there was a loud crash somewhere outside the gate. Stack leapt back up, paused, and looked back at us.
“They’re coming!” he shouted.
Then Hawk climbed up to above the gate as well. I followed, and so eventually did Whisper – some of the footholds were a bit far apart for him.
From the top of the gate I could see a gaggle of men hanging around in an irresolute knot, as far down the path as they could be and still be visible.
“We’re coming for you!” shouted a voice.
Then they unwrapped into a loose line – and wrapped together again.
Then someone started a very tentative chant, and other voices, one by one, joined in. It was all too quavery to catch the words, but it seemed to give them heart; slowly they – I almost said marched, but it was more like tiptoed – towards us.
The closer they came, the more we saw them split into two: one man at the back doing all the shouting and urging on, and the rest in a bunch at the front, half coming forward and half hanging back. The bunch were armed with spears – if you could call such rubbish spears – and one was carrying what looked like a torch. A puff of blue smoke drifted out whenever he paused and whenever the man at the back urged them on again.
“I wish we could take out that one at the back,” I said.
“That coward. Thinks he’s safe and sends the others into danger. Makes me sick.” And Stack smacked one fist into the palm of his other hand. “Hawk?”
Hawk was staring out, protected by the left hand gatepost – yes, there was no sign of missiles, but a good warrior takes no unnecessary risks; even I knew that. “Mm,” he nodded. “I can hit him, but I can’t be sure to kill him. Give me space.”
Stack moved left, and Whisper and I moved over to the right. Then Hawk slowly chose a stone, slowly loaded his sling, and slowly began his swing.
“Stack, Whisper!” he hissed. “Can you sling the bunch, so that he doesn’t know I’m aiming for him?”
Whisper already had his sling out, and his stone hit a body in the ribs – enough to sting, but Whisper’s too short to do real damage from up there. Stack’s stone followed a few heartbeats later, and, judging by the sound, hit leather. The bunch huddled together and stopped, spinning very slowly on the spot.
The coward stretched up slightly, as if he wanted to see what had happened. Hawk grinned. He lofted his sling, reached up his full height and sent the stone out clean. It got him – we saw the coward snap back and fall to the ground. Yes!
The gaggle he was urging forward broke up and stared back at their fallen “leader”, and suddenly ran away back down our path and out of sight. The correct decision.
“Our first battle,” I said. “And we won!”
“One shot from Hawk and they ran like rats.” Stack shook his spear in the air, and slapped Hawk on the back.”A great chief you are, Hawk-on-high-bough son of Rope-tight-woven!” And the two of them went into an impromptu victory dance. I wouldn’t’ve done it on top of a rickety gateway myself, but I suppose boys don’t think like that.
“Anyway,” said Hawk at last, “we’d better go and collect the corpse. If he’s dead.”
He wasn’t. He was deeply unconscious, though.
“Will he live?” Hawk prodded him with his spear point.
I shrugged. “Probably. I don’t think his skull’s cracked – I think he’s just concussed. Can’t be sure. Can’t say I care.”
“Oh I do,” said Hawk. “I don’t want him going to the Spirit world before we’ve had a chance to explain to him exactly what we think of cowards.”
Stack grinned. “Stones, we’ll make sure he knows!”
I’d been holding Whisper’s hand, but suddenly he snatched it away. I looked down in surprise, but he didn’t look at me; he just wrapped his arms round himself and stood still.
I reached a hand out to him. He just shrugged it off. What was the matter with the kid?
Anyway, Hawk and Stack stripped off our guest’s clothing, dragged him over to the stake in the dancing floor and secured him suitably, while I offered the Victory and danced the Dedication. Then we dined on venison – roast of course what did you expect what else was there without a cauldron – and eventually decided it was time to pay attention to our guest. He was well awake by then, and becoming quite vocal.
“Oh dear dear!” I said to him, patting his cheek, “aren’t you being well treated?”
“You can’t treat me like this, you fucking savages, and you fucking well know it!”
“Tsk, tsk! Language! But let’s see if we can give you something to lean on – that will help, won’t it.” I waved at Stack, who heaved on one of the thongs. Our new friend swore some more, and scrabbled with his feet as he was dragged hard against the stake. And then a little further.
“There, you see?” said Hawk. “We do what we want to cowards like you. Oh dear, your arms hurting?”
I squeezed his shoulder. “A broken collarbone, I think.” I squeezed it some more – his face went white. “Yes. You must’ve landed on it when you fell. What a shame. Still, perhaps Stack here can do something for you.”
Stack laughed – I can’t remember ever seeing Stack laugh except when he has a toy to play with – and then leaned over, grabbed the scum’s hair and began whispering in his ear.
“No! No! You can’t!” Our guest didn’t seem to appreciate just how honoured he was. “You can’t do that to me, you fucking bastards. They’ll – they’ll –” Stack shook his head by the hair, and then let go, slamming his chin into his chest.
“They’ll what?” asked Hawk, grabbing our guest’s hair again, and pulling it hard up and back – so that he looked straight into my face – and twisting hard. “You see – Seer, what’s the matter?”
I didn’t answer. Suddenly a black horror had locked onto my heart, a horror of death, of the certainty of my death, of the inescapable horror that one day I will fall into, never to emerge, the horror of the uselessness of all life and the final end of all hope…
And as I clawed my way out from under the blackness, a single thought was left rolling around my brain.
A panic attack? At my age? I thought the menopause came after puberty!
Anyway, I wasn’t going to show weakness in front of that scum, let alone Stack and Hawk and Whisper.
“The Spirits!” I gasped. “The Spirits! It’s a warning! A warning! A warning!” My breathing was deep and panting – not by choice; it was all I could do not to fall over, let alone control my body, as the blackness swept back around me – and the words came out croaking. “The Spirits! They warn you warn us warn me warn warn warn!” Drool was oozing from my mouth as my words descended into gibberish. Finally I laughed. Stack and Hawk leapt back a pace as though I’d struck them.
But my eyes rolled back down, the horror faded, the light shone again, and I was standing upright in front of our prisoner. He was still hanging from his wrists tied behind his back, but his face was bloodshot grey with terror, and he’d emptied both bowels and bladder.
I could almost sympathise – though I was surprised; I’d’ve thought after what he’d been through already there wouldn’t’ve been anything left in them – but at least I was getting my mind back on track. I looked up at Hawk.
“Are – are the Spirits angry?” he stammered, and Stack nodded. I must’ve put on quite a show, for them both to look so scared.
“No.” I waved my hands, palms down, like smoothing out a blanket. “No. They hate cowards just as we do. But they are warning us that – that we must not damage this one. There is a reason, and we will know the reason soon enough. We must be careful. It matters – the Spirits would not have gone to such trouble if it didn’t.”
I’m not quite sure why I laid it on so; I shouldn’t’ve done. There was too much said that could be proved wrong. OK, I was lucky as it turned out; but I needn’t’ve been.
Unless the Spirits did put the words in my mouth.
Did I believe in the Spirits, or didn’t I? I never had before, not since – well, not since my Nan died. Why should I start to doubt now?
I looked at Hawk again. “You will want more, of course, Hawk-on-high-bough, Chief of the Causeway Tribe. I will consult with the Spirits, and I will see what more they may choose to reveal.” I turned, picked up my cloak and walked through the gate and away into the darkness.
The rocky platform was only a hundred paces from the camp, but the trees hid the slightest glow from the fire. I was alone in the dark, under a starless sky, with only the night noises to keep me company. As I climbed up to it, a spatter of raindrops rattled on my cloak and touched my face; but after that the air was dry, gentle and almost warm – especially for the time of year.
I sat down on my favourite rock, and began to think. And then I stopped thinking, shrugged off my cloak, and took up the Approach posture. Once I was steady I began the usual Widening sequence, almost without thought.
The encounter with the scruffs among the ruins had shaken me, shaken me much more than I’d been prepared to admit. I’d kept telling myself that nothing had really happened; that in fact I hadn’t come to any harm; that I was above being upset by such a thing.
I’d been lying to myself, and the panic attack had been the result.
Why had it upset me so much? I’d faced bullies before, I’d faced gangs of boys before – no, I’d not enjoyed it, but these things happen. What had changed? Well, they weren’t Tribe, for a start; it was partly like a raid from – say – the Valley Tribe or the Coldshores. I could have been captured and then, well, anything.
But there was more, wasn’t there.
Sex mattered, now.
Oh I don’t mean it didn’t before; I’m not saying I wouldn’t’ve been scared of what that great big thing forced into my little pouch would have done; but what it would have done was hurt me. Split me. Wound me. But now it was different; now it could make a baby in me. Now it could even give me pleasure.
It was all different; all contradictory; none of it fitted together; nothing made sense.
I suppose most girls just handle it and get over it; but I wasn’t most girls; I was a shaman. I needed to face the difference; I needed to understand. And that was hard.
But eventually I began to relax. I pulled my cloak back round my shoulders, and cosied myself against the rock. As usual, I began to think of Hawk, his height, his strength, his warm skin against mine, his arms around me, his lips…
Just a minute! It hasn’t been ‘as usual’, has it! I haven’t thought about Hawk, not like this, not since the scruffs!
It’s always disconcerting to have two trains of thought going at once, and especially when one of them has such a physical element. So while my mental hands were working steadily down Hawk’s back, I was trying to think through the obvious point: if I’d missed my own sexlessness, what else had I missed?
The answer came in the end: Whisper. He was there too. He must’ve been just as frightened – more so; he’s so much younger. And he’s shown it, too; hiding away and hunching in corners, and I’ve ignored it. Just as I’ve ignored my own problems.
I stopped thinking about Hawk, and went back to worrying about what had happened to me and to Whisper. Do boys feel differently about such things? I didn’t know. Did his behaviour show fear, or suppression of fear, or what? I didn’t know. Should I talk to him or let him handle it himself? I didn’t know. Would it harm him in the long run? I didn’t know. Had the others noticed? I didn’t know.
What did I know? Nothing. I call myself a shaman, and I know nothing.
I struggled again with what I felt, what I’d done, what had happened. And I still wasn’t sure how far I’d got. The only comfort was that at least these were real emotions, real feelings, not the deadness of suppression. But now I added Whisper and Stack and – and Hawk to the mix. And I fought to understand.
It took me too much of the night. And even then I wasn’t sure I’d got to the heart of things. I just wasn’t sure anymore.