My dances, watches, ceremonies, none of them brought me any new answers. After two days it was a waxing moon, of course, which is never bad, and there were no – but I’m straying into shaman’s business.
I had plenty of time, too, as it turned out. The weather turned really unpleasant, with icy rain and sleet chasing each other around the trees. Hunting was out of the question, and even my gathering forays turned into quick runs between blasts. So four days were a complete write-off, and then of course we had to stock up on supplies. It rather brought home to us just how far from our old Tribe we were; at this time of year the Longwood winter camp gets rain, but never this hard vicious icy stuff.
I am a shaman. Shamans do not get homesick, because shamans are at home everywhere and nowhere. So I was not homesick. Obviously.
But I couldn’t help noticing that the boys were a bit, well, quiet, too. Perhaps they were homesick? Or was it embarrassment; supplies were a bit low, and at this time of year it was their job to get out there hunting; perhaps they’d been taking it a bit easy, and this bad weather had caught them out. I didn’t say anything, of course – at least, not directly. I may have accidentally implied a slightly critical tone, maybe.
Anyway, six mornings later we set off in bitter cold into a bright horizontal sun, confident in our ability to find the way – after all, look at how well we’d done in the past. I packed some extra food, just in case. Whisper was overexcited, as you’d expect, so I made him dance the Blessing with me to calm him down. I suppose it worked a bit.
We walked along the hill northwards, and then dropped across to the track to Caadaisa actually in distant sight of Dae’s Farm. The track was difficult to miss, but the thawing mud did not help one bit – even Whisper nearly took a tumble. But eventually the track turned south, and therefore into shade from the hedges, and life became suddenly much easier.
Caadaisa turned out to be quite a place. Five or six widely spaced houses straggled across our path, with a filthily muddy area in front of them, where you waded almost up to your ankles, bruising your toes on the cobbles hidden underneath. It looked like a dancing ground, but dancing here would cripple you instantly.
There were people visible when we arrived, but the moment we even turned towards anyone they ran into their houses. Only dogs came bounding out towards us, barking loudly.
“Stand still and quiet!” hissed Stack. Whisper stepped in front of me, then we all froze as commanded.
The dog – it was more than an arm’s length high at the shoulder, and the head was huge even for that – the dog ran right up to Whisper, barking deafeningly, and then stopped, legs splayed, almost touching him. It lifted its head high, and went on barking, nose to nose – literally less than the thickness of my hand between.
Whisper was locked in position. I could sense his muscles tremouring, but not a fingertip moved.
It seemed like an hour: the dog barking inches from me, Whisper holding rigid, staring into the dog’s eyes, the whole world shrunk to this little span.
Then the dog flew through the air away into the distance. It took me several moments to realise Stack had snatched it by the neck in his two hands, and flung the beast away. It landed with a gravelly crunch, but ran off without a limp, so I don’t think its flight had harmed it much.
Whisper and I collapsed against each other in tears of relief. At least mine were; I assumed Whisper’s were too. Anyway, I admit it: I hugged him very hard. He deserved it.
We pulled ourselves together quickly, though. The other dogs weren’t that far away, and a couple of the villagers had reappeared. They didn’t seem welcoming.
“There’s a track over there,” shrugged Stack eastwards. He sounded casual, but I was glad to see he had his staff held out towards the dogs.
“Let’s hope it’s right,” said Hawk. “I don’t fancy asking directions.”
The path was very stony, with a mix of big slabs, ice-glazed cobbles and loose gravel interspersed with patches of hard-frozen mud. It was also a steady climb above a frozen stream, following it back in a quarter-circle until we were facing almost due north. Then it kinked sharply right, and became a fold on the hillside through scrubby bushes and open grass. The bitter east wind locked our faces and froze our bodies even through our cloaks. I glanced back at Hawk and Stack, who were nattering to each other, and gestured to them to lead the way. After all, Whisper was little; he needed the extra shelter.
Then we came to the Pass.
“Wow!” said Hawk.
In the bright frosty air we could see forever! We could even see our own camp, a tiny circle in the woods on the far western hillside behind us, where the land climbed away, a patchwork of fields and farms and marshland stretching to the feet of distant mountains. Northwards and southwards, hills stood in quiet dignity on either side of our path.
Eastwards, our track led us between two stone columns, black-grey, rough-built, leaning inwards, threatening.
“My business,” I said, stepping forward.
The columns were newly built, or perhaps newly rebuilt; there was hardly any grass or moss growing on them, and they stood against two heaps of rocks that were almost covered in grass. I was too bundled up in warm clothing to dance, so I took out a couple of rattles, and walked the Double Road – there was only just room – and sang the Song Of Honour; then I stood between the columns, slipped my hood back, and offered the Words. It felt unstable there, and stepping through to the other side felt like stepping out of a tent.
“You may come through!” I called to the others.
They obeyed, but then Stack stopped. “This is a holy place?” he asked.
“Yes,” I shrugged. Curious bit of role reversal there – Stack asking questions and me shrugging.
“Shaman of the Causeway Tribe,” he went on. Oh oh, formal title. What’s gone wrong? “I ask you to present the name of Whisper-in-the-dark to the Spirits as a Hunter of the Causeway Tribe.” Ah.
Whisper was – I think gurgling would be the closest word. “B-b-but I thought I had to – I need to – to sling a stone –”
“A stone through the Chief’s door, and to stay silent for a nail of lamp-fat. Yes, that is the usual way. But where a boy has shown real courage more than once, he can be made a Hunter in the field, as long as the Champion and all the Hunters agree. And we do.” He looked up at Hawk, who nodded. “You’ve shown courage three times: you stood still and silent in front of the dog, holding its attention from me so that I could throw it off; you hit an enemy with your sling in the Battle of the Gate; and you stood by your Shaman when she was attacked in the ruins. That’s more than enough.”
“Any one would’ve been enough, in the old Tribe,” added Hawk.
“B-b-b-but I was so scared, I didn’t attack them or protect Seer, I j-j-just stood there, I thought you’d think I was a coward, I was so scared, I didn’t, I wasn’t…”
So that’s what’s been going on in his mind! He was thinking he’d been a coward! Right! Now I understand!
Hawk laughed. “Coward? No! You were one eight-year-old hunter: they far outnumbered you and were braves: attacking them would’ve been suicide. You were right to be scared. You got it wrong, yes: but not through cowardice. You should’ve run to find us. I know it meant leaving Seer, but you couldn’t’ve helped her by staying. You needed reinforcements, and you should’ve run for them. You were stupid, but you weren’t a coward.”
“So,” Stack returned to the point at issue in his usual heavy way, “Shaman of the Causeway Tribe, will you to present the name of Whisper-in-the-dark to the Spirits as a Hunter of the Causeway Tribe, so declared in the field for his courage in battle and the hunt?”
“I shall so do, when the Words have passed his lips in my hearing,” I replied.
“So, Whisper-in-the Night, say after me so that the Shaman can hear: ‘I am Whisper-in-the-night,’ “
“I am Whisper-in-the-night,”
Oh, I’m not doing all the repeats.
“Son of the Causeway Tribe and of Seer-of-hidden-things of the Causeway Tribe. I swear never to betray my Tribe, to dishonour the Spirits or desert a comrade; and I promise to obey my Chief, my Shaman and my Champion, and to respect the hunter, the hunted and the hunt.”
“The Words have passed his lips in my hearing,” I acknowledged. I picked up a dead leaf and kissed it on the front, Whisper kissed it on the back, and then I dropped it onto my open firepot. It flew out and vanished in a bright flame. I spoke – carefully too quiet for the others to hear – the Words Of Attunement, bowed, and blessed Whisper with the Three Blessings of Air, Water and Earth.
“It is done,” I said. “My greeting to you, Whisper-in-the-night Hunter of the Causeway Tribe.”
And Hawk and Stack greeted him in the same words. Not surprisingly, he didn’t reply.
And my thoughts were lost in the memory of Hawk, standing tall and strong between the sacred pillars, his skin golden in the morning sun.