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Holy places are usually on hillsides, but here there were no hills except the one where the camp was. There was the rocky knoll up there that I used as a Holy Place while I was still… While I was still part of the Causeway Tribe. I didn’t want to go there.

But there was another, stranger place that I’d found since, and where and when I’d least expected – which is the mark of a true Holy Place. Almost at the lake shore, not very far from the farm but across wet, unpleasant land, there was a flat pavement of split stones. It was five paces across, ten long, and fragments of old walls still marked its edges. At one place someone had built stones into a great doorway with no wall; like two tree trunks fallen together that you could walk under, but in stone, and the trunks curved like two hands placed palm to palm. Outside, patches of thick mud wove between head-high brambles and alders; inside, nothing grew but small weeds, mosses and a couple of high ferns. Only silence, and silent sounds, and the soft shifting of sullen water as the lake breathed, just a dozen paces away.

There was no shelter, and little protection from the wind, but there wouldn’t be a wind tonight. Already the mist was so thick that even in the setting sun I couldn’t see end to end.

A barrow wouldn’t cross the vile land, so I had to carry poles and skins to set up a watchseat, facing east as is proper, so it looked diagonally across the pavement and out across the lake.

“What’r you doing?”

I jumped so high the watchseat collapsed under me. I nearly crippled myself on tumbling poles.

“Whisper! I thought – I mean, you weren’t – Crear said – What are you doing here?” And shouldn’t you be in bed?

“Lady Crear said you were doing shaman’s stuff out here.”

“Yes. Shaman’s stuff.”

“And I’m going to be a shaman. So I came. I want to help.”

“Boys can’t be shamans!”

“Boys can be shamans! Zaradzagus is a shaman and he’s a man.”

I really could’ve done without this. “He’s a nasty man!”

“But he’s a shaman. And you said boys can’t be shamans.”

“But he does tricks and cheats. He lies and tricks people. He isn’t a proper shaman. Shamans don’t lie and cheat.”

The lip began to quiver. “That’s not fair! You tell lies! You said boys can’t be shamans not and they can! You said I was a Hunter in the Causeway Tribe and then you made me come down here! And you told lies to – to my who‑was‑my‑father and my who‑was‑my‑brother – you lied to them, and you told lies to Stack and Hawk about after the thing with Zaradzagus so that you could run away and you said boys can’t be shamans not and they can!”

“But – oh stop throwing a tantrum! Be your age!”

Too late.

“I hate you! I hate you! You don’t want me not never to be a shaman and I’m going to be a shaman! I’m going to be a shaman whatever you say! And I know how to do it! I know who’ll teach me!”

And before I could grab him he ran off. I heard his footsteps splotching over the wet ground, until even the quiet smothered the sound.

Well, there was nothing to be done about it now.

I put the watchseat back together again, spoke the Words, and took my place on it.

There I watched till the faint shadows began to creep across the stones. When the first shadow touched my feet I took off my clothes, and danced.

A few mist-smothered stars struggled out overhead as I finished my dance, and then – but that’s shaman’s business.

But I couldn’t concentrate. My mind seemed like a tent curtain that had caught on a pole end – half open, half shut, unable to be either. All the proper – that is, nothing seemed to reach out beyond me. I wasn’t sure why: had Whisper disturbed me too much? Was this somehow the wrong place? The wrong night? Had I done something wrong? Left something out?

The questions only made things worse.

My meditations became more and more half-hearted; my dances more and more perfunctory, until I just sat in my watchseat, pretending to meditate, but really just letting my mind drift.

So the Spirits weren’t going to help me make a cauldron. Truly, I’d not expected anything else. It had never worked even back in the old days.

In the Old Tribe. The proper Tribe.

I began to remember.

I began to remember the campsites, the dancing floor, the Chief’s Tent, the Shaman’s Tent – my tent, my home. My mother, drunk and angry or drunk and sullen. The tables and bowls and mortars where I made the potions and ointments and salves. The sleepingsteads at the back of the tent, cosy through the night. The cauldron hanging over the fire, bubbling softly in the dark.

The cauldron.

I began to remember watching that cauldron being made. It was an important event. Potter Ashkeys had a Lad to help and to learn the Craft, of course; Tribe Custom demanded it. But a Lad could only be trusted with easy things, cups, bowls, small things. A cauldron, that was serious. Potter Ashkeys always made a cauldron himself.

I began to remember how Potter Ashkeys had chanted as he worked the clay, over and over again working it with his feet, and chanting an invocation to the Spirits.

How he’d built the kiln – how long he’d taken over it! I could remember the care he took, how precisely he set clay to clay, how thoroughly he sealed every crack, every join, and always with an invocation.

I could see and hear him now, measuring the kiln, calling the measurements out so that the Spirits would know he’d built it right. I could hear the very numbers as if he were calling them there beside me.

And how gently and carefully he built the cauldron! Snake after snake of clay, rolled out on the slab, then wound down and smoothed onto the rim so that the cauldron slowly grew, as a mushroom grows, silently and carefully. Then the smoothing again, and rubbing down outside and in with thin clay to seal it. I remembered how he’d bite his lip with anxiety as he eased the clay so gently and yet so strongly, how every touch had a whispered word with it.

Finally he would slide the cauldron on its slab into the half-built kiln. Then, just as slowly and carefully, the rest of the kiln is built over, propped up with thin sticks to keep it off the cauldron inside.

Then my mother dancing the Blessing. That at least I’d got right.

Then a very gentle fire at first – I’d forgotten all this completely – but yes! He’d just lit a tiny fire in the pipe itself, then slowly built it back into the hearth so that it grew and became fierce – but not for a good hour after first lighting it. Then Potter Ashkeys would pump it with bellows, and all the children with him, blasting it till the fire was white hot. They would pump and pump and pump, and the bigger boys would heap more and more wood on the fire, until everyone was white and choking with fumes and with laughter.

And how next day the kiln would be cold and white, and Potter Ashkeys would pull it apart, little by little, and a blessing at each crack, until it was all peeled away, and there would be the cauldron, perfect, red, hard and waterproof.

I began to remember.

The rising sun was invisible behind the fog, but the whole lake knew when it rose. I took off my cloak and shook it to the four directions and the five, holding it so that the Nine Herbs fell correctly to the dancing floor, and danced the Welcome.

I dressed, packed up and went back to the farm.

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About the author

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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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