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“So you are a shaman, my dear!” Obviously Crear was being a good hostess and making conversation, I understood that. “So that is more than just being a healer?”

And so I was on my best behaviour too. “Yes, Lady Crear. I am – I mean, a shaman is – is the link between the Tribe and the Spirits. Healing is part of that link, of course.”

“So who are the Spirits, exactly?”

Ah. And who are they, exactly? It’s difficult to think clearly when you are trying to work out how your hosts expect you to eat a pigeon with two sharp sticks.

“It – that is, they live in the world beyond the door.” This did not seem to be quite enough. “Just as we can influence the world outside our door, so they can influence our world. The lesser Spirits, that is. There are greater Spirits.”

“But you wish not to speak of them?”

Actually, I’d stopped to catch the gravy dribbling down my neck. But if you’re given a bag of cherries, don’t count the stones. “It is better to speak of them at a more appropriate time.”

“And the door? Which door do you mean?”

Hello? Not ‘what do you mean by door’. This lady knows more than she says.

“The door that opens outwards and upwards – not the door of sleep, which opens downwards and inwards. You understand, I take it?” Which is more than I understand how to eat mashed turnip with two sticks.

“Well, yes, though I ben’t sure how much I – that is, I’ve tried it never myself.” How much she believes? She knows something, but doesn’t believe it? Why does a pigeon have so many drippy bits?

“Family tradition? Or a shaman has taught you?”

“Yes, but I’d say not – well, not a shaman like you…” She looked in the general direction of her man, but it was one of her children that helped her out.

“The Wizkid. I hate him – he’s creepy.” Nothing quite like an eight-year-old boy for non-judgemental tolerance.

“The Wizkid?” I asked. “Not the – I mean, that’s quite different from the sort of name shamans have in our Tribe.”

“That ben’t his name.” She frowned disapproval at her son, who of course took no notice at all. “But he calls himself a Wizard, though none of us quite know what that is either.”

“Yeah. The great Wizard Ziggyzaggy, or something. He’s still creepy.”

“Zaradzagus.” Her man finally joined the conversation – and not before time, judging by her sigh of relief. “Says he has all sorts of strange powers, but actually does anything never. Just sits in his tower and sniggers.”

“Oh, Da! He invented that red dye and the red lip paint!” “And his raddle works a lot better than the old stuff!” “And he taught us Chase!” “And he makes really good harps!” I gathered the family had mixed views on Wizkid Zigg – curiously, it seemed to be male versus female. Meanwhile, I was feeling a bit short on vocabulary. I started at the end, hoping to work back.

“Chase? What’s that?”

“A stupid game –” began Dae, but “Oh Da!” “Da, it ben’t stupid!” “Oh Da, you’re always the same! And you enjoy it as much as anyone!”

“Well, all right. It’s good fun now and then. Makes the winter nights a bit shorter. My kids can show you, if you like, once we’re finished. I’ve got to get back to pleaching the Teckfield hedge.”

Chase is a game, you play it on a flat piece of wood, about an elbow’s length each way, called a ‘board’, you each have three wooden peg things called ‘horses’, and you try to get your horses all the way round the board before anyone else. There’s some knucklebones, as well, that decide how you move. It was good fun, or at least Hawk and I enjoyed it. Stack didn’t really seem to get involved.

“There’s other games you can play too!” One of the boys bounced over with a little box. “There’s Niffynaffy, and Drats, and Pop. The Wizkid showed us all of them. But he’s still creepy. I hate him. Look, for Niffynaffy you –”

“No you’d not!” Their mother intervened firmly. “You’ve got your chores to do, and our guests want not to be pestered by your silliness!”

“And your guests must stop pestering you,” added Hawk. “We are very grateful to you for your kindness, and hope you will come to us one day to share with us.”

“That’s very kind of you, and I hope we shall.” I understood that as a formal answer to a formal thankyou; and I wasn’t surprised that Crear didn’t stop there. “I – you’ve done so much for us, and we’ve given you nothing in return. And my daughter – well, you’re all welcome here any time, as long as you like, and we really mean that. But surely there’s something we can – something more?”

Stack – you know, once in a while Stack really surprises me – Stack said, “There’s only the four of us. We can’t protect ourselves against a whole town.”

Hawk nodded. “What matters to us is that you are on our side. That’s worth more than any gift.”

“Minir, run and fetch your father. He’ll be just down by the Nanstream. Now!”

We waited in silence for maybe ten minutes, while I tried to understand what was going on.

Why had Crear sent for Dae? She’d made all the decisions so far without need to consult. Why did she suddenly need to check with her man? She was the tent-wife, surely? Wasn’t that how it always worked – the man went out hunting, and meanwhile the wife ran the tent and made the decisions.

What was different?

And then the branch fell: this was Chief’s business, and Dae was chief. I was thinking of the farm as a Tent – it wasn’t, it was a Tribe. Dae was Chief, and therefore Dae had to take a Chief’s decisions.

But then, what about Crear? She’d been taking decisions; who was she?

I thought back, and again it took some time, but the only thing that made sense was that Crear was the Champion. That – and only that – made sense: the decisions she’d made had all been Champion’s decisions, about the current situation, keeping things safe. And it was Crear, not Dae, who went to the markets to sell; that was her battleground, where she fought the other sellers for the customers, bringing back rings and chains as trophies instead of heads and prisoners.

Yes, Crear was the Champion of the Tribe – but Crear was a woman, and the Champion should be a man! I couldn’t quite get my head around it – a woman Champion.

And also, if they were a Tribe, who was the Shaman? Who was the Singer? Who was the First Wife?

Anyway, Dae appeared eventually, tapping the mud off his feet on the doorpost.

“Dae, love, our guests want to go. But they’ve something to talk about, to ask.”

Dae made much the same courtesy as his wife had, and then paused.

Hawk stepped forward – Chief to Chief. “We want to say that we are few, and we are strangers. The most valuable thing you can give us is your friendship. If we know we have friends nearby we can sleep much more easily. But of course this must work both ways; we want you to know that you can call on us as friends too. But also we know that this is of much less value to you than your friendship to us. Are you willing to give us your friendship on those terms?”

Dae smiled. “You have our friendship on those or any other terms – you had it from the moment Lady Seer walked here with me.” He and Hawk shook hands. “And your friendship is beyond price.” He reached out for his daughter and put his arm round her shoulders. “We will forget not. And you especially, Lady Seer. Before the fire in the hearth I say it: there is a place here for you. We will forget never.”

Never? That’s a very long time.

But it was time to say our farewells. We left with friendship and – most of us – with dignity.

“Boys can be shamans!” crowed Whisper. He didn’t even wait till we were out of the farmyard. “This Wizzyman is a shaman and he’s a man. You said boys can’t be shamans, and you were wrong!”

He timed his ducking perfectly; my hand just missed his hair. He bobbed up a shade too soon, though.

“Owww!”

“Serve you right!” I said. “And anyway, you heard, this Wizkid isn’t a proper shaman – he just says he is. It wasn’t him they went to when their kid fell sick, they came to a proper shaman. A girl shaman. Because –”

“Boys can’t be shamans. Yes. But can’t we go and see him? Please? Pleeeeeease?”

“Don’t be so stupid! And behave yourself – they can surely still see us!”

And it was like that all the way home.

When our hostess said they hadn’t given us anything, this wasn’t literally true. We ate very well that night on lamb stew – and finished the meal with bread and cheese. I like cheese, and so did the boys. They didn’t know how it was made, of course, so their pleasure was, shall we say, flavoured with ignorance.

We cooked the lamb stew in its bag using a pit and hot stones from the fire. The bag was of course the lamb’s stomach, so that was edible as well. What it also did was remind everyone of what we didn’t have.

“Do you suppose this Wizzy person might know how to make a cauldron?” asked Hawk casually. Overcasually, I thought.

“Ooh yes! We could go and ask him! Couldn’t we not? Couldn’t we not? Pleeeease?”

“Whisper,” I said.

“Yes? Can’t we not? Can’t we not? Oh go on! Pleeeeeeease! Or I could just go with Stack?”

“No!” At least I was clear on that. “This man – this person claims to be a shaman. It’s shaman’s business to talk to him.”

Hawk and Stack nodded firmly. “But we probably ought to make contact. He could be a bad enemy, from what Dae was saying. But it means leaving the camp unguarded again.” Hawk looked at Stack, who nodded.

“But it is winter, the days are getting colder, and we could see snow.” Stack glanced up at the stars, and especially at the starless dark along the valley. “We could even see snow tonight. If any time of year is good to leave the camp, it’s now.”

“Do we know where he lives?” I asked.

“You go to Caadaisa and follow the road over the Pass. I spoke to Dae while you were packing,” said Hawk. Indeed? Behind my back? Well, I’m in a forgiving mood.

“Just like that? We won’t be able to mistake the tent from those directions,” I said.

“Well, Dae said – and the kids did too, you heard them, that he lives in an old – what was the word – tower. Yes, an old tower.”

“Oh, better still!” I replied. “And we all know what a tower is.”

“Like a tree, but stone. I asked.” Stack can surprise me, he really can.

“There you see?”nodded Hawk. “We couldn’t possibly miss that!”

Yes, he had a point. Unfortunately. “Like a tree, but stone. OK, I can’t imagine it, but I suppose you’re right; it’s going to be obvious when we get there. But even so, we’ll need clear weather. If it’s fog or rain we won’t recognise it ‘cos we won’t see it!”

“And it’s not looking good. Better give it a couple of days.” Hawk stared at the distant horizon, every inch the experienced hunter. Admittedly, he couldn’t actually see the distant horizon – he could see nearby trees and bushes, but that was all – but Hawk still looked the part.

“Let’s give it four,” I suggested. “It’s a new moon in a couple of days, and if this – person – really is a shaman, well, there will be some extra matters to attend to before we start. If nothing else, I need to consult.”

And not with you. I need to assert rank.

But in truth, I was also anxious to meet this strange man, who was and was not a shaman, and was liked and disliked, and could and could not do things.

But I still didn’t believe he was a shaman. If there was a shaman in that tower, it was a woman. Presumably his woman – or rather, he was her man.

Well, there was some iffing and some maybes and some could-we-get-provisions, but we agreed in the end on four days. That was fine; gave me more than enough time to catch up on things.

And by the feel of how the boys were behaving I needed to catch up. I hadn’t realised how much I’d been out of things, and I urgently needed to get back.

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Bio: Just a retired mathematician who likes writing stories about the beautiful part of the world he lives in.

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