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And so the great day dawned. The boys were up to their necks in cliché: ‘raring to go’, ‘what wonders we’ll see’, ‘real power’, ‘now we’ll see something’ – honestly, not an original thought in their heads. Whisper and I just continued ignoring them.

Well, except that we both spun breakfast out as long as we could, and we were both v-v-e-e-e-r-r-r-y-y-y s-s-l-l-l-o-o-w-w-w-w getting ready, and I danced the Blessing almost in slow motion . We hadn’t agreed it; we just both did it off our own bats. On the spur of the moment. Or whichever cliché you fancy.

We got to the Great Wizard Zaradzagus Grovelling Area around mid-morning, and found plenty of grovellers there before us. Enough to have attracted a man selling some sort of meat and hot bread, and another selling hot drinks.

“Nobody’s selling wet nellies!” moaned Whisper. “Why’s no one selling wet nellies? I like wet nellies! Why ben’t they selling wet nellies?”

Of the Great Wizard Zaradzagus himself there was no sign. Well, I didn’t expect anything else – obviously he’d wait until there was a good crowd to witness his Entrance – but apparently the boys hadn’t worked this out. Their disappointed looks made me laugh, which didn’t go down very well.

What a shame.

Well, when we’d hung around for a good hour waiting for something – anything – to happen, three lads walk out to by the water, and produce a drum, a whistle and something you pluck, and struck up a tune. To be fair, they weren’t at all bad. A few of the crowd start singing along, and then one or two began to dance, and it all got nice and relaxed. I didn’t know any of the songs, of course, but even so I enjoyed it.

But suddenly there’s this loud trumpeting noise from the tower (all on one cracked note), the music stops instantly, and smoke starts pouring out of its black sides. Then with another bleat of noise the whole side of the tower begins to hinge downwards – not just a narrow path like we came out on, the whole side. Smoke billowed out all around, so thickly that it was actually sliced by the huge ropes on the tower section.

The crowd – all except Whisper and me – the crowd went “Ahhhh!”

The Great Wizard Zaradzagus was standing on the tip of the platform as it slowly – ever so slowly – descended. He was dressed in a long, yellow robe from neck to feet, apparently plain, but sparkling in the low sunlight against the dark smoke behind him. He held a long, twisted and carved staff in his right hand, a good arm’s length taller than him, which also had something glittery in the top.

Very impressive, you had to give him that. This was a man who knew how to make an entrance.

The platform didn’t come all the way down to the ground; oh no, that wouldn’t’ve done at all for someone like the Great Wizard Zaradzagus to come down to our level. The platform came to a judder, and eventually a halt, almost manhigh above our heads. You could have heard a jaw drop.

“Friends!” he declaimed.

“Hey for the Great Wizard Zaradzagus!” shouted someone in the crowd, and the crowd went wild! (A plant? Orchestrated? Surely not – whatever gave you that idea!)

And then the Great Wizard Zaradzagus gave a speech. He spun it out for well over an hour, with the crowd hanging on every word, so you’re not getting the lot. Just the important bits.

Like:

“Open the doors to your powers through meditation. It isn’t difficult! At least, if you have any strength at all it is not. Just calm yourself. Calm and suppress your thoughts! Open the mind!”

Mmm… Not quite, surely?

“Push away your thoughts, reject them! Use them as a barrier to hold away the outside world! Reject it! Rise above it! Then when your mind is truly controlled, your heart truly stilled and the outside world cast aside, then a new awareness, a greater awareness of your true self will reveal itself to you – rather, will reveal your self to you, your true self!”

No no! That’s completely wrong! You can’t start with your thoughts – there’s far too much to do before then! And you don’t reject – oh by the Stones, this fool’s got it all wrong! The last thing you should do is reject the world – or anything else!

Or has he got it wrong? He’s talking as though he meditates himself, and it can’t’ve been this way: you just can’t start like that. He must be deliberately misleading them. Why?

“Meditation is the key to power! Because meditation is the key to your own power – the only real power. If you have the basic strength of character you need to meditate as I’ve shown you, then the things you’ve seen me do – you will do too!”

So if you can’t do these things, it’s not because I’m telling it you all wrong, it’s because you’re a weakling – it’s your own fault!

But it got worse.

“Look never for any power beyond yourself! The only powers are the powers of your right arms, the powers of your heads, the powers of your hearts! Those are the only powers that can matter – those are the only true powers! Look never to women’s superstitions, or spirits, or stars, or lucky charms! You men have the power! Reach for it! Tap into it! Use it!”

WHAT?

“Rights come from strength! Rights come from power! It is strength that matters! It is power that matters! It is men that have the power, it is men that have the strength, so it is men that matter! Women are weaker than men. Women have less power than men – so it is men that have rights, not women!”

By now I was beyond speech.

“Learn from nature! Do hinds choose their stags? No! Stags fight each other, and the stronger takes the other’s hinds – whether the hinds want to or not! “

Remind me to tell you the tale of Blobnose one day. That’ll teach you how much choice the hinds have.

“Do jill hares choose their jack? No! The jack takes the jills he wants, and defends them against other jacks. The jills have no say – nor should they! So why do your women have any say? The women you own –”

WOMEN YOU OWN???????

“The women you own should do what you tell them. They shouldn’t be trotting out opinions of their own – it should be ‘My man says this’ and ‘My man thinks that.’ They’re your women, they belong to you. Let them do as nature always intended and accept that we men have the power, we men have the strength, and therefore we men have the right to own our women, and to do what we please with our own.”

There was a noise at the far side of the crowd at this point. I think a group of women were shouting something – I noticed one woman in particular, in a red dress and waving a red cloak or something, but they were all too far away for me to hear. Anyway I was too busy feeling sick.

I wanted to go, but the others just stood there. Apart from Whisper, who was playing fivestones with a couple of other kids.

Then eventually Ziggyziggy reached his final inspiring climax – which I really can not repeat, it was that bad – and rose up and away into the tower the way he’d come. A little puff of smoke drifted out as the wall closed, I remember.

The musicians started up again, and everyone milled around in an aimless sort of way, and then there were sudden little commotions near the base of the tower. I couldn’t care less what was going on there. I wandered over to see if I could find the lady in red.

I had to push through the crowd, but I got through to her eventually. She was taller than me, and thinner – almost gaunt; there was more to it than just thin bones. She was with another woman, about the same age – twenties, maybe? – and the same style of dress, with folds at the waist and a double tie to her dark brown cloak, but plumper and somehow twitchy. And yet the red cloak was a bit tight, a bit straight-up-and-down; while the dark brown one was loose – almost fluffed out around its owner. They were quite different from the other women around; the other women were obviously from round here, and appeared to be listening to Zugglezuggle with open adoration. Redcloak and Browncloak definitely were not adoring at all.

“Er,” I began, with startling originality.

“Hello, sister!” replied Red-cloak.

Excuse me, but I’m not your sister, thank you. But there was something about her voice…

“I couldn’t see or hear clearly from where I was,” I continued, “but I thought you were showing disapproval of the performance.”

“Yes – performance. You have a gift for words, doesn’t it, sister.”

I was sure. “But you come from the same place as him, don’t you? Are you in his tribe?”

“How did you know that?” The false familiarity suddenly dried up, and suddenly I liked her a lot better.

“You speak the same, Lady – Lady –.”

“Still? I hoped it showed not maintent.” Maintent? What does that word mean? “But you’ve a very sharp ear, sister. Yes, I’m Fihel, dau–”

“Excuse me,” her companion butted in, “but ben’t you the woman everyone’s speaking of that’s the woman who’s vending salves at Brothy market? A shaman, or some such word? From one of the savage tribes out west?”

My, the compliments are flying today. I suspect my reaction to the word ‘savage’ showed in my face.

“Henva!” exclaimed Fihel. “You called her what!”

Henva put her hand to her mouth as her voice rattled on. “I’m so sorry! Oh Fihel! What it must be thought of me! It just slips out. Please, lady, I offer my apologies.”

There was no point in being stupid about it. After all, she was just saying to my face what everyone says behind my back. “Nothing to apologise for, Lady Henva,” I replied, keeping my tone formal. “It’s Seer, by the way. Lady Seer, if you insist, which I don’t.”

“Lady Seer,” she replied, and we shook hands.

“For future reference,” I added, “the polite phrase is Tent Folk.”

Fihel smiled. “That’s we in our place, Henva! And quite right. But you are the shaman of the Tent Folk? And you also go not with that hoopoe’s doctrine?”

Hoopoe. Yet another new word. I wonder how far they’ve come, that so many words so quickly are strange? “I completely disagree with everything he’s said so far. His rejection of the Spirits, obviously, his degrading of women, also obviously, and his faked instructions on meditation, also obviously. But it–”

“Faked?” Henva was suddenly attentive. “I’m essaying his methods and I can’t have them to work at all, and so have lots of people I speak to. Why fake?”

“They can’t work, they are utterly wrong in their taproot, and yet he speaks as if he meditates successfully – and I incline to believe him. I believe the instructions are designed to fail, so that people think they are weak losers and feel inferior. Meditation has to be done quite differently – but this isn’t the time or place.”

Fihel smiled. “But Henva will want a time and place, win’te? It’s her style of thing. Look, we’d like to talk more, but as you say, this is difficult. But we’re essaying to establish a group of women to fight this man. Would you – could we persuade you… Maybe?”

I smiled and retreated.

A strange couple. They both spoke very very fast, and yet the plump fluffy one seemed to pour her words out like feathers from a cushion, hardly getting one out before the next was started; while the other, the skinny redcloak, the words came out separate like darts; there was almost space between them.

And I hadn’t asked again about why they were come from Ziggy’s home when they didn’t support him. Careless, but then I was still worked up about Ziggy and his teachings.

Well, it probably wasn’t important. Eventually the music stopped and everyone seemed to be drifting away. The boys and I found each other again, we collected Whisper and left.

Obviously I wanted to sound off about it all; I mean, wouldn’t you? But the boys ignored me from the start, muttering and chattering to each other with their shoulders firmly towards me.

So what? I don’t care what these stupid boys do. I’m a shaman. I’m above that sort of thing.

Aren’t I?

I got the impression that Hawk was doing the pushing. Stack seemed to be defensive, slightly looking away and leaning away from Hawk, who was pushing forward. It seemed to stay that way all the way home. But when we got home, and started putting a meal together, Stack seemed to give way. You could see his head turn little by little in Hawk’s direction, see his shoulders straighten. There were a couple of moments when Hawk obviously produced some real knock-down argument that brought Stack up short. But all the time I couldn’t hear a word!

In fact, I felt really excluded – pushed away and out. And yes, it did get to me, just a bit.

After dinner, Hawk sat back.

“He’s right, you know,” he declared. The first words I’d actually heard or had spoken to me since the performance.

“Who is?” I asked.

“Zirakzagus.”

“Zirakzagus?”

“Yes. He said the only powers are in our own right arms, and he was right. The Spirits haven’t any power over us if we’re strong. I stood up to the Lady of the Flies and she couldn’t destroy me – because I’m strong.”

I didn’t quite know how to answer, just like that.

“You’ve been saying the Spirits want us to have a cauldron, but they’ve done nothing to help us at all. They have no strength at all.”

“Well, –”

“And you were supposed to be protecting us from great dangers, yet you were away for days and nothing happened. There Spirits are nothing, are they. Powerless shadows. And your claim to control them – it’s all just a cheat.”

He stood up and walked over to me.

“Come on,” he said, “Admit it. Admit you’re not a shaman and –” he took my hands in his and looked at me with that half-smile of his – “be my girl.”

Stones, I am so ashamed!

What was I thinking – well, I wasn’t thinking, was I! That was the problem. My whole body – including my brain – was just assuming “Yes!” After all, it was what I’d been wanting this twelvemonth – what I’d been dreaming of, what I’d been going to sleep thinking about – being Hawk’s girl. Obviously “Yes!” was the only possible answer – I didn’t need to think about it.

And my mouth was open to say it, actually open to say “Yes!” when there was a hard tug on my skirt.

I glanced down. “You’re my mummy! I don’t want you to be his mummy as well!” and a very cross little face were staring up at me

It wasn’t the logload of childish misunderstandings behind this remark, nor the real worry in Whisper’s face. It was just that the spell broke – it gave my brain just the moment it needed to click back into gear.

I took my hands back from Hawk. “Well, then, I suppose Stack will want my house, and I have some packing to do,” I said, and, holding Whisper’s hand very tightly, dragged him back into my place.

“Pack!” I snapped at him. “Pack everything now! You’ve got five minutes and if you’re not packed by then you’ll get the worst belting I’ve ever given you!”

“And shut up!” I added.

In five minutes, more or less, we had everything either packed or tied onto the outside of the pack or else we were wearing it.

“Now,” I said, “you’re the hunter. What’s the safest way out of camp without either of them seeing us?”

Whisper’s jaw dropped. “We – we’re running away?”

“Yes of course you gowk! Now which way?”

It wasn’t difficult. The fences were made to keep things out, not to keep things in. Soon we were deep in the woods and well out of sight of the camp.

“Right,” I said, “so we’re out of the camp. But if they follow us, we need to lose them. Hunter, show me how.”

Give him credit, he did. We waded along stony streams where our footprints wouldn’t show; we trampled false trails across weeds and swung back on tree branches; we walked onto flat rocks and jumped off, doubling back; we climbed trees and worked across to other trees and so down into water. These and a dozen other tricks should have been enough to put the best trackers off our scent, and I knew that for all their boasting these two were not the best.

In the end, we found a high pine with a damaged trunk that had grown a thick whorl of branches about the height of six men above the ground. We climbed into it from the tree next door, spread out a bed, tied ourselves in and tried to go to sleep. Whisper managed it at once. I didn’t. Not for hours.

And when I woke, it was broad morning, and a clear cold sunny winter’s morning as well. The birds were producing a very half-hearted dawn chorus, but otherwise nothing stirred.

The boys hadn’t found us.

It wasn’t relief at not being found that was strongest in my mind. It was the emotional certainty that they had never bothered looking.

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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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