Our path ran on down the eastern slope, deep with long use; but a set of zigzags had been newly cut to let a cart up or down the same slope, and they’d obviously taken most of the traffic; so our path was grass-covered – and slithery with loose stones where it crossed the cart track. When the cart-track and footpath rejoined, we followed a frozen stream down through a deep-cleft valley. It sheltered us from the east wind; I for one was very grateful.
Apart from anything else, it brought my mind back into gear.
“So what was that about?” I asked Hawk.
“What was what?”
“Making Whisper a hunter up there?”
“Well, he deserved it!”
“What? All that rubbish about ‘Any one would’ve been enough, in the old Tribe!’ It’s total – total fantasy, and you both know it!”
“No it’s not!”
“Oh, come on!” I exclaimed. “All right, he stood up to that dog. Or at least, he froze there. But lobbing a stone at an enemy from a safe corner – when did that deserve a field promotion? And as for cowering in my skirts when those louts attacked us! What was brave about that?”
“Well, Stack and I think he deserved it. He’s been working really hard, we all have, when there’s almost no game in the woods at all, and we’re glad to recognise him. After all, it’s more than you do.”
That was so unfair, I was left speechless.
At the valley mouth the track forked.
“Left just leads to that village,” shrugged Stack.
“So we go right,” said Hawk. “I don’t feel we need to disturb them.”
The right hand track led to a bridge; an icy, slippery bridge of split tree trunks worn shiny with use, glazed with clear ice, with no wall or rail, and a definite slope to the left to help you fall off if you once lost your footing. To make matters worse, the pool under the bridge wasn’t quite frozen.
And no, we hadn’t brought a rope.
Stack and Hawk looked at each other.
“The stream’s nothing,” said Stack, “and frozen anyway. The bridge is dangerous.”
“Exactly,” said Hawk. “We cross below the pool.”
It was rocky and wide, but Stack was right; there was very little ice between the rocks. We clambered back up to the road perfectly happily.
And the road here was wide. Two carts could have passed each other easily on most of it. But it had been a long time since they did – the scrub and brambles invaded and tangled all but a footpath winding along, dwarfed by the high hedges and wide space between.
And then we saw the tower.
Like a tree but stone? That hardly touched it.
Like the trunk of a dead tree, perhaps – but the trunk of a giant among trees; it leapt the height of an ash tree – more – into the sky, but a whole ash tree with a trunk that much across would have blocked out the sun.
The top was a ragged edge, as though it had snapped off, but the rest was smoothed stone. Black, doorless stone.
It dragged your heart into your guts just to look at it – and that was from the outside. The space inside had to be huge, terrifyingly high and wide.
It stood off the path by a good two hundred paces, in a wide expanse of water. The land between the path and the water was flat barren sand; utterly, unnaturally barren. This edge was marked by a bank of thorns, straight as a pot-string, that ran out a little way into the water. The far side began as a similar bank, but half way along a black building stopped it. It was house shape and twice house size, with high dark walls, and, well above head height, windows that looked as though someone had blocked them with stones and then smashed some of the stone out again.
A mouse could not have approached even the water’s edge without being seen.
“Well?” asked Stack eventually.
Hawk gestured towards the building. “That wall seems to join the tower to that house over there.”
Wall? OK, a line of stones showed above the water, coming from the tower and zigzagging to dry land and on to the black house, but it was never more than waist high, and its sides sloped. Wall was it? Walls keep things out – this couldn’t’ve kept a baby out. No, I reckoned this was a causeway – the way to the tower. Which meant the house was part of the tower.
So we walked up to the black house, then – with some scratches from the thorns – all round the black house.
“There’s no door,” said Stack. “No way in.” He made the Sign. “Is it magic?”
I shook myself. A shaman shouldn’t allow herself to be spooked by such things. And there must be a way in.
“Right,” I said firmly, “this is shaman’s business. You two, Hawk, Stack, take nine, then seven, then three, then nine slow paces back the way we came towards that corner, and stand and wait. When I signal, you walk back here slowly, pausing after every seventh step. Understand?”
They nodded, it seemed to me quite gratifyingly nervously, and did as they were told.
Once they were out of earshot, I disentangled Whisper from my cloak, and crouched down to his level.
“Now, Whisper-in-the-night son of Seer-of-hidden-things, I suppose now you are a hunter, you don’t want to be a shaman any more?”
He shook his head.
“Pardon? I didn’t hear you.”
“Going to be a shaman.”
“You say you can be a shaman?”
“What do shamans do?”
He didn’t seem to hear me.
“Pull yourself together, if you really are a shaman. What do shamans do?”
He bit his lip. “Speak for the Tribe to the Spirits, speak for the, for the…”
“For the Spirits to the Tribe, yes, go on!”
“To – to see what can not be seen not, to speak what can not be spoken not, to walk between enemies and to stand between friends.”
“Good. Now, this place makes you afraid, yes?”
He nodded. Eventually.
“But can you see what it is you are afraid of? Is there a spear head? A fang? A claw? What can you see that you should fear?”
He shook his head.
“I can’t hear you!”
“No. There is nothing here. Maybe there are enemies hidden behind the hedge? But no, we walked all around the building. There is no one hidden. Is there?”
“So what is there to fear?”
“Is it the Spirits?”
“Don’t ask me – ask them!”
He paused, in that way of his, eyes somehow looking in, not out.
“So it is trickery. Unless the Spirits are lying to you, you are being tricked into being afraid. Agreed?”
“So you will walk out into the very middle of the sand, with this rattle, and you will rattle the four directions and the five, and then you will walk back. And you will not show fear. You will not lie to yourself; you will say to yourself yes, I am afraid, but I will not show it. If you really can be a shaman as you keep saying then that is what you must be able to do. Can you do it?”
He bit his lip, and I think he was trying not to cry. But he took my rattle and did exactly as I said. And he walked back – he didn’t run a single step. I was very proud of him.
“Now you wait here while I do the same.”
He waited, without a whimper.
“Now we go and look at the buildings.”
“But we just did!”
“Yes, with the others. But we are shamans. We see what can not be seen. They can’t. We need them out of the way, or we won’t see either.”
We did. We walked all round it, very slowly, staring at every detail. We came back to where the causeway met it.
“This causeway – surely this is the way in. That’s where we should be looking,” I said.
So we did. We stood with our noses almost against the building. We stood a pace back. We stood close again. We stepped back.
And at last I saw it.
“The bottom of the house. Where it meets the wall. Look!” I bent down. “Look, here, see how dust has been pushed up into a ridge? As if a door has closed from the inside? And the ridge stops here, and there’s a crack, look, up here, here, here? See, between the stones?”
“It’s a door! A hidden door!”
“So, how does it open?”
“A magic word?”
“Maybe, or a magic sign, or you touch the stones of the door in a special way. Or…”
Whisper was wide-eyed. “Or?”
“Or we just push.” I pushed. The door opened a little way, just a handbreadth, and stuck. Warm air washed over me – I stood there for a few moments, just enjoying it.
Whisper clapped his hands “We did it! We found the way in!”
Well, actually, I’d found it. Never mind. “You see? A shaman must see what can not be seen, however simple or difficult. And if you want to be a shaman, you must learn to see.”
Bearing in mind, of course, that boys can’t be shamans. But at least they can’t accuse me of neglecting him, now.