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I woke up headachy after too little sleep; I sluiced myself down with cold water from the stream, which helped enough for me to face some food.

After breakfast, Stack and I wandered over to our guest to make sure he hadn’t died on us overnight. In fact he was surprisingly lively, given that he didn’t seem to have slept at all: strange really. Stack had given him three ways to get comfortable: he could pull his big toes off and kneel down, pull his thumbs off and lie down, or pull his balls off and sit down; yet he’d just not been able to make his mind up which to go for. Such indecision; but what do you expect in a coward.

To make sure he was comfortable, Stack had lit a fire conveniently close to him to keep him warm through the night. Always thinks of others, does Stack. Our guest’s skin was cherry-red where it had faced the fire, even though that had almost burned out. He whimpered when I touched it.

“Now,” I said, “I think you should tell us all you know about Bulken and everything else in this area.” He whimpered again. I put a gentle hand on his shoulder, and softly massaged it. He sobbed as the two broken ends of his collarbone ground together. “And the more you tell us, the easier it will be for me to keep Stack off you.”

“Yes yes yes! Please! Yes what –”

There was a sudden loud crash outside the camp. Stack leapt to his feet and up above the Gate. The rest of us followed.

“Are they back?” called Hawk.

Stack didn’t seem to hear. Even when we climbed up alongside him he was just staring out down the path.

Typical, I told myself, Just when I was going to have some fun, as well. It didn’t stop me being frightened, but it helped me not show it.

At the far end of the path a man was standing. He had a staff in his hand, but no other weapons that I could see. The staff was just hooked under the tripcord Stack had tied across the path – this man was no fool. Which did nothing for my nerves.

“What does he want, d’you think?” murmured Hawk. “He’s on his own – surely he’s not come to fight us?”

“Is he? Or is he a distraction?” Stack leaped down and I saw him run round our fence, his head held just below the top, except when he popped up for a quick look.

Meanwhile our visitor stared at us for a long minute. Then, very very slowly, he grasped his staff in both hands, lifted it in the air, and paused. Then, still very very slowly, he lowered it to the ground and left it there. He lifted his hands up again and paused again.

When I said very very slowly I meant it. Stack was back by this time. “No sign,” he muttered. “What’s he doing?”

“Proving he’s unarmed, I think,” muttered Hawk.

Next the man very very slowly untied the neckcord of his tunic, and then eased it gently off. Holding it at arm’s length in both hands, he lowered it to the ground. Then the same with his breeches He stood there naked a moment, arms held high, and then turned round with his back to us, paused again, and turned back to face us.

Hawk glanced at each of us and we nodded back. “Very well, we understand,” he called out. “You come alone and in peace. Dress yourself and come closer in safety.”

The man dressed himself again, still very very slowly, and then, keeping his hands very clearly visible, he strode towards us with a slow pace. He left his staff behind.

Meanwhile I had worked out what was likely to happen, and was running back to my tent. I was a shaman first of all: I needed to impress this visitor as a shaman. How do you impress someone you know nothing about? You guess and hope. And it would have been easier without a headache.

I knew these people regard nakedness as debasing – which was important for understanding what had just happened – and therefore I guessed that showing no skin would be the opposite. And I remembered our visit to a Town, and how the top man had worn very elaborate clothes. So I needed to cover up, and look complicated.

No dancing, then.

“Take off your tunic!” I ordered Whisper.

I snapped the stitching at the shoulders of my shift, slipped into it and dropped it to just hide my feet and brush the dust; I tied it in place both under my shoulders and at my waist – I didn’t want any accidents making me look stupid. Then I put my dress on which covered my arms and shoulders as well as my ties, and then I turned Whisper’s tunic half inside out and pushed and twisted it into a headdress that covered everything above my collar except my mouth and chin – even my eyes were hidden behind its fringe, although I could see out perfectly well. So I was completely covered, head to toe, except for my hands and just half my face.

It was a guess, and it would have to do. The rest I would have to carry off by sheer personality. Yes, well…

Whisper, on the other hand, would have to go naked; but he’s only a kid anyway so that wasn’t a problem from the status point of view. From the temperature point of view, though, he had problems. Serious problems.

Tough.

While I was doing all this, I was listening to what was going on outside.

“Very well,” I heard Hawk’s voice. “Who are you?”

“I am Dae Graam’s son, of Dae’s Farm,” came the reply. Low pitched, clear, but edgy.

“Are you alone?”

“I am alone.”

“Do you come in peace?”

“I come in peace.”

I heard the gate being opened. There were a few more formalities of the same sort which all went as you’d expect. I stepped out onto the dancing floor and stood, very still, my hands across my chest and each tucked in the other sleeve so that they didn’t show any skin, my head slightly bowed as if I wasn’t looking at our new visitor. Which of course I was.

He was middling height – taller than Stack, shorter than Hawk (but who isn’t!) but very heavy across the shoulders. His legs were a little short for his body, but his feet were big and heavy. His hair was black with just a few streaks of grey, and curly like his beard. His face was relaxed, but nothing else about him was.

He saw me and paused, and then took a few steps towards me. This brought him into the line of sight of our other guest.

“Dae! Oh thank the Powers, Dae! You’ve come for me! Oh at last! Dae, you don’t know what they’ve been doing to me – what they’re fucking going to do! Oh thank the Powers you’ve come for me, Dae!” and so on until he ran out of steam. But Dae just took one quick glance at the coward and then stared straight ahead at me.

Stack thumped his spearbutt to the ground, I assumed to get attention; if so, it worked.

“Friend of yours?”

Dae Graam’s son opened his mouth, but paused before he spoke. “Wife’s cousin.”

“And you’ve come for him?” Stack’s tone was almost sneering – hardly the tone for a guest, I thought.

“No. I might have done. I knew he was here. But why I have come ben’t that.”

“Then why have you come?”

“The courtesy of our Tribe has been tested of late,” I interrupted. “Our normal hospitality is therefore not as evident as it should be. We apologise to you, Dae Graam’s son, of Dae’s Farm.”

“That you have been tested, I have heard. As for your hospitality, that you have let me in is already better than I feared, Lady.”

“But the Shaman of the Causeway Tribe is right – as ever,” said Hawk, sitting on a stump and doing his chief pose. “Whisper, fetch food and drink for our guest.”

Whisper was struggling to hold my cloak in place around him with almost no success. He ran off into my house and soon reappeared with a bowl of meat – my lunch, to be precise. Meanwhile Stack fetched another log over and gestured to our guest to sit down.

Stack took the bowl from Whisper and presented it to our new friend. “Now get some mead!” he hissed at Whisper.

Our guest waited until the mead had arrived, and then put both down beside him on the log.

“I want not to trick you,” he said. It seemed to me that he was weighing every word, judging how it was received. I was glad I’d veiled my face – or at least my eyes; it gave me a big advantage. “I come not to be neighbourly, though we are neighbours. I come for a favour.”

“So we assumed,” said Hawk. “But still, let us share with you, and then you may ask your favour. I, Hawk-on-high-bough, chief of the Causeway Tribe, promise you that whatever you ask will be listened to, and whether or not we grant it, no ill will be held against you for asking.”

Well, that’s generous of you, Hawk!

Our guest paused, and then took a morsel of meat and put it in his mouth, chewing slowly. He washed it down with a sip – no more – of mead.

I approved of that; it meant I was likely to have some lunch left.

“You are very generous,” he said at last. “I hope we will be good neighbours.”

“Indeed,” answered Hawk.

“And so I’m bold enough to ask. They say you were the people selling salves last Brothy Big Market. Secrets Of The Savages, or some such name. You had some tale of a fake shaman plundering the savages of their tricks and medicines.”

“True,” said Hawk.

“The tale is just a tale, of course, with all honour to you. But the salves, everyone says they were gradely in their power.”

Ah. Whatever gradely meant, it certainly sounded like a compliment. Nice to know someone appreciates my skills.

“And they say that you treated old Paedr of Toram’s Farm, that had a bad arm this two months, and it healed in five days, as clean as a plent.”

“True,” said Hawk again. He sounded surprised – I certainly was. I’d’ve expected Paedr to keep that tale to himself.

“Though they say you got little thanks for it.”

Hawk – wisely, I felt – kept silent. Mind, it didn’t take a shaman to work out what was coming.

“Now I have a daughter, who’s been fevered this four days, and she gets worse day by day – hour by hour this day. And so the favour I ask is, would you tell me what thanks I could offer you for curing my daughter – or at least, treating her – that might…” His voice cracked. “We fear to lose her…”

“No thanks we ask,” answered Hawk. “Not for such a gift. But our shaman will go or stay as the Spirits lead her, and either with my good will.” Hawk is really good at the formal, impressive phrase that, in cold blood, says nothing at all except perhaps “I am passing the buck.” And the shaman has to pick it up, as usual.

I had stood completely still so far, except just that one little speech. Now I reached up and drew more cloth over my face, hiding it completely, and then went back to the same pose. But now I started murmuring a song (the Song Of Acceptance, as a matter of fact – the first one to come into my head) and then I threw the cloth back off my face.

“The Spirits approve,” I stated. “I will come with you and do what I can. But the Spirits do not promise a cure.”

“Well enough for me,” Dae answered, and I think he almost sighed. “I said true, I came alone to your farm, but two hundred paces away my eldest son and my fourth daughter are waiting in Raspberry Glade. They will stay here until your shaman returns safely.”

“No they will not!” I exclaimed. “Are you enemies that we should take hostages from you? And do not the Spirits walk beside me, keeping me from harm?” Well, no, they don’t, because they don’t exist. At least, I think they don’t. I’m not sure of very much nowadays.

Furthermore, hostages need feeding, and I still wanted my lunch.

Chapter 5 - Curing

We, that’s me and Whisper and Dae, we picked up his two children – well, the girl, Minir, was an eight-year-old, but the lad was nearer my age – and went on to Dae’s Farm, leaving Hawk and Stack to look after the camp. It took a good hour all told, northward along the ridge above our camp, until we looked down on wide patches of grass enclosed by stone walls.

“My fields,” said Dae. “These are pasture mostly, for cattle. There’s one I can usually mow for hay, that way, under the shelter of the hill. The fields north of the farm are mostly to oats or barley, but again the southernmost will give me a crop of wheat most years – it’s gradely land, and worth the chance.”

We nodded intelligently, as if we understood what he was talking about. At least we now knew what a ‘field’ was.

“And that’s the farm, over there.” The house wasn’t in woods, though there were a few trees planted as a sort of shelter to the east and north; nor was it on a hillside. But streams from the hill ran down to it, joined into a series of pools on the west of the house and then flowed on north to a great lake, dark under dark clouds.

As our host pushed open the gate of the farmyard, a thin woman came running out of the house.

“Oh thank the Powers you’re back!” she exclaimed. “She’s so much worse! She’s burning up and tossing and calling – Dae, I’m scared for her!” She seemed to suddenly realise the rest of us were here

“This is the healer; she’s willing to help,” Dae gestured at me. “She will want food and drink and to refresh herself after the journey, Crear, before we trouble her with Kahan.”

“Not if the patient is as bad as that,” I interrupted, “I appreciate the honour you do me, but take me to her straight away.”

The woman made a sort of half gesture to me, and then turned and almost ran back into the farmhouse. I followed. In the main room, straw had been built up into a platform, and on it a heap of blankets was tossing and tossing and tossing. I ran over; the girl in the blankets was perhaps eleven or twelve, muttering gibberish, and hot even standing next to her. I put a hand on her forehead, and it scared me. I dropped my pack, picked her up, shook off the blankets, ran with my burden out to the farm pool and jumped in. The cold snatched all the breath out of me and almost every muscle in my body seemed to cramp; but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that my patient also went into the icy water, all but her mouth and nose, and little by little the muttering faded, the tossing stopped, and the heat subsided. It was a massive risk; I could have killed her; but I’d won the battle – the first battle.

She was sleeping normally in my arms. The fever was still there – it would not have been good to cool her right down – but the intense heat was gone and she was no longer in danger of permanent harm; at least, no more than had already been done. I breathed a sigh, and carried her out of the pool and back into the house.

I laid her on the straw with her feet toward the fire, turned her on her side, and folded up one blanket to support her head. She was wearing a smock, and that was still dripping with the cold water, which would help her stay cool for a little longer, I hoped. The last thing she needed just now was another covering. For me, on the other hand, it was the first thing I needed. I pulled off my dripping cloak, wrapped myself in the other blanket, pulled up a stool so that I could sit at her head, and opened my pack.

“Oh, my dear!” The woman ran over to the far end of the room and brought back a smock and a dress. “Put these on, my dear! You’ll catch your death of cold, jumping in pools in this weather! Not but I understand what you did, and I do be grateful, truly. But put these on, and I’ll get you something to warm you inside!”

“You’re very kind, thank you!” I said, and believe me I meant it. And almost before I’d put on the dry clothes she was pushing a big bowl of stew into my hands – stew! Real, thick, hot stew! Oh yes!

I ate it, watching my patient’s every breath. Her temperature stayed down – not totally down, but safe enough. Her breathing was steady, even if it was shallow. She wasn’t tossing, but her chest was rising and falling with her breathing and her pulse was steady – fast and shallow like her breathing, but steady. There was a rash, all over her body and arms but on her chest especially, but it faded briefly when I pressed a finger on it – which is good news.

“Thank you,” I said again, passing the empty bowl back to my hostess. “May I trouble you now for a bowl of boiling water? A little bowl, if you have one.”

“Yes of course, my dear!” She brought me a sweet little pottery bowl, that fitted comfortably into my two hands. Perfect. I reached into my pack for a certain pot, and stirred a measure of the salve into the water, mixing it in as the water cooled. Then I spooned a drop – no more – into my patient’s mouth. She swallowed it.

“Is that good?”

“Yes,” I answered. “But whether it will help or not we won’t know for a few hours at the very least. Perhaps in three hours, perhaps in thirty hours. Or…”

“Or?”

“Or perhaps never.” I looked her in the face. “Understand, please, I give no promise of success, only that I will do all I can.”

She bit her lip, and Dae put an arm around her waist.

I eased a spoonful of the mixture into my patient, drop by drop. She swallowed it all. Then I stood up.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I haven’t introduced myself. I know our names sound stupid to you, so just call me Seer, please. And this is my son – my adopted son, who’s going to be my runner between here and our own camp. You can call him Whisper.”

As I said this I suddenly realised that there were half a dozen other pairs of eyes staring at me from the darkness beyond the fire. I concentrated on my host and hostess, though, for the moment.

“Pleased to meet you, Lady Seer.” She took my hand and shook it, in the way people have around there. “And you too, Whisper. I am Crear Chawo’s daughter. My man Dae Graam’s son you have met already. Chawo, Dae, children, come and be polite to our guests!”

The eyes came out from the darkness and resolved themselves into a row of humans, shyly huddling towards me.

“This is Chawo, our eldest daughter,” The solidly built young lady must have been at least a year older than me, more likely two. She muttered something vaguely like “Pleased to meet you,” put her hand out and back so quickly I didn’t have time to shake it, and then retreated. But there was something in her face – was she pregnant? Yet her waist looked shapely enough. Just a couple of months gone, perhaps.

“Young Dae, our eldest son, you have already met as well.” One of the suggested hostages, of course. Perhaps just younger than me, but solid like all the family. Actually, rather nice looking, and judging by the downiness of his chin old enough to be interesting – pity he seemed too scared even to open his mouth. Mmm… Well, mustn’t get distracted. “And Graam our second son,” A year or more younger, but equally inarticulate. And equally downy-chinned, which was interesting. Farm Folk certainly mature faster than Tent Folk, by anything up to two years, I’d guess. I wonder why?

“Kahan is our next daughter, and then Crear, our second daughter, Minir who you’ve also met, then Csel our third son and Ska our youngest son.” Who was four or five, I would guess – there should have been a couple more after him. And yet Crear didn’t look too old to be bearing children. Well, a shaman should ask questions, but there is a time and a place to ask, and this wasn’t it.

I turned back to my patient, and waited.

For thirty-two hours.

And I was already sleepy from last night.

I gave her a spoonful of mix every hour for the first three hours, and every three hours after – if you give too much for too long it can make trouble. She was all over the place at first, but she steadied off after only a couple of hours, and began to show solid improvement after about sixteen. Then it was a slow but steady climb back.

They gave me more stew of course, in fact they gave me as much as I wanted, which fell rapidly to zero as I felt it making me even sleepier. So then they gave me bread daubed with some very savoury white stuff with blue ripples in it like mould; I’d never tasted anything like it before. Gorgeously rich flavour, with a real bite to it – I definitely wanted to taste it again.

“It’s called cheese,” Crear answered. “We make it from our own milk.”

“Well, you do, love,” said her husband. “You’ll let me not anywhere near it!”

I smiled. “How is it made?”

I’m glad she told me after I’d tasted it. If I’d known before, I’m not sure I could have put it in my mouth.

The twilight came, darkness fell, dawn crawled in, the farm went about its business, and I sat by my patient. When even the bread and cheese was making me nod off, I sipped cold water, splashing it on my face. The afternoon wore on, and another dusk, and I stood up to keep awake, holding on to a beam to stay upright.

But it was worth it when just before midnight Kahan opened her eyes and hugged her father.

“And now it’s bed for you, Lady Seer!” Crear led me – well, pulled me – over to a nice straw bed with sheepskins to cuddle me and a rolled and tied fleece as a pillow. I was asleep before I lay down, she says, and I believe her.

I woke, suddenly, all of a piece, and as exhausted as I usually am when I go to bed, not when I get up. Sunlight was shining in at the door. I struggled to my feet – and would you believe it: the Earth Mother had chosen then to make me a woman – in other words, I’d started my first period, in my sleep, in someone else’s bedding. Thanks a bunch, Earth Mother – you’re as stupid as my real mother is.

That’s all hindsight, mind. At the time I was so out of my skull that I just stared at the red patch in a daze, completely unable to work out what was going on. Crear must have seen me standing there staring stupidly; she came over.

“Oh, it’s your month!” she said. “I suppose you were thinking not with the watching’n’all. Or can you count not yours?”

“I – well – it’s my first,” I stammered. A certain level of brain activity was slowly returning. “I’m sorry… I just wasn’t expecting… I mean, I’ve got nothing with me… and the mess… I’m sorry…”

“Oh don’t be silly! It happens to all of us! But your first? My my! A big day! We are honoured!” Crear laughed. “Now, if you want to wash, use the Dipping Pool under the wall, there, and here’s your clothes and here, you tie one of these against yourself.” She gave me a cloth bag stuffed with dried moss – neat and clever; there was more to cloth than I’d realised – and showed me how to wear it to catch the blood.

“But the straw – the bedding!”

“Oh, silly, I’ll see to all that while you’re gone, and I’ll have a cup of hot and a bite to eat waiting for you when you’re back! Now go on!” and she pushed me out of the door.

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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.

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