And then it was the day.
There were still some decisions to make, and the most important was: what to wear?
I know what you’re thinking: typical fluffybunny girlywirly only thinking about her looks. Well, that’s not fair – it mattered a lot. I needed to get the tribes on my side, and how I dressed could make a big difference. I must look like a shaman – but not at all like a wizard; I must look womanly but in no way girly or weak; I had to balance on that infernal contraption of Henev’s and look dignified and confident.
And I had to look good. Yes, all right. I admit it: I may be a shaman, but I’m a girl too.
There were a few givens. I had to cover up – the less skin the better with these people. And I was stuck with what was available at Dae’s – a pure white robe would be great, and there are ways of whitening fur which surely would work on cloth, but they take six months, not six days. So I finished with a dress of Crear’s that fitted well, had long tight (but not too tight) sleeves, and came down to my feet; and over it my cloak that I wore at Nightwatch but with the ropes taken off – they were too wizardy, I felt, especially after Tappy’s comments – but I wasn’t completely happy.
And last of all I pinned my cloak with the pin that I got at Nightwatch. I was careful to bless the Lady as I did – I needed all the help I could get.
I got there nice and early, not that long after dawn, because Henev’s contraption needed us to stand or sit at special places, if it was to work. The boys were there before me, Fihel and Henev about half an hour later, as other people were arriving. Then Tappy and friends, casually close to us. Last, for us at least, Whisper and Young Dae. They stayed well away from us, as they’d been told, and seemed to find some kids of their respective ages to talk to near the edge of the area.
Then I had a bright idea.
“Er – Lady Fihel – I wonder – could I ask a favour?”
“Of course you can, my dear.”
“But she’ll probably say no!” giggled Henev. Fihel glared at her, and looked back at me.
“May we – I mean, could we swap cloaks? Just for today?”
She pulled back and raised her eyebrows, but then she seemed to think about it. “You’d be in red – yes, I comprehend – easy to see, a woman’s colour but not weak or feeble, and long enough to be dignified – yes, certainly you may. A clever idea, my dear.”
And the Lady’s pin shone against it like the Dawn’s Daughter in her Mother’s light.
I’d just finished pinning it on properly when half a dozen of the ladies from my tutoring session came over and wished me well – apparently Crear had hinted that something might happen. Thank you, Crear. Just what I needed: extra humiliation when I failed.
There weren’t as many grovellers this time as there were the first time, but the mix was about the same – except for a bunch of tough-looking men who sat right over to one side, almost in the water. They had hoods pulled down over their faces and daggers hidden under their tunics – hidden from ordinary eyes; but I’m a shaman. I didn’t like them; were they here to start something? Or had Zuggles heard something and hired some protection?
Anyway, the morning otherwise went the same as before. Zugwug made the same entrance, and began much as he had last time. I just gritted my teeth and listened for anything useful. There were changes, obviously – he can’t’ve memorised just one speech – but for quite a time there wasn’t anything that seemed to matter.
The first important change was when he started on his ideas about power. Last time he had gone on a bit, saying things like “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.” And a lot more of the same stuff. But now he said ‘authority’ as well: “The only powers are the powers of your right arms; the only authority is the authority of your own strength – or what you let other people take from you. Use the strength of your heads, the strength of your hearts! Those are the only authority that you should accept.”
There was more – a lot more – but all on the same line. And all of it could be interesting to, say, a Governor in Bulken or Brothy. It was certainly interesting to the gang of tough guys. It interested me to put those two points together.
The next interesting section came quite a bit later, after talking about why things weren’t perfect, and who to blame.
“For instance – you’ve all been complaining that there are no deer in the woods – that your usual hunting this year has left you all hungry. You want to know why? Because of your own weakness! Your own weakness in letting these savages – those savages there – live in your woods and hunt your deer and eat your food! That is why there are no deer in your woods! Don’t hunt deer, hunt those subhumans, those undermen, those animals that every logical and natural argument proves to be unfit to live with proper human beings! They’ve stolen your food! They’ve hunted your deer! They are why you are going hungry!”
“LIAR!” I shouted. “LIAR!” And Fihel and Henev and the boys and every one on my side took it up. “LIAR! LIAR! LIAR!”
“Who dares call me a liar!” he exclaimed. “Show yourselves!”
“I do!” I shouted. “You are a liar and a fake. You have no power beyond the power of your voice and the skills any fool has! Your wizardry is cheat and lies! And we are just as human as any here – except you – you alone have sunk below everyone here with your lies! But let come up closer to your exalted height!”
I gave the signal, Tappy’s lot struck up a good strong tone, like a march, and I felt the queasy wobbling under my feet. I tried to stay upright, but almost immediately felt myself falling, so I changed it into the Request from the Dance Of Return – you know, that long sweep of the hands, down on one knee and back up to the high reach – and was thankful I’d thought all this through beforehand. Tappy and company matched their music to my actions – Stones, they are good!
I rose to, I suppose, about waist high. Enough to be impressive, with Tappy to help.
“There!” I called out, in a hushed crowd. “Now we’re more of a level. Now cast your spells, wizard! Throw a fireball, blast me with a maiming spell, bend me and break me – come on! Let’s see what you’ve got!”
For once he seemed lost for words.
“Come on!” I shouted. “I’m a woman! A savage! Surely you’re not letting yourself be defeated by a subhuman? Surely all nature teaches us that you can destroy me! Rise up as I have!”
“It’s a cheat!” he shouted back. “Just some mechanical trickery!”
“Of course it is!” I shouted. “Just like all YOUR tricks. And your tricks are just weights and ropes! Ropes made from the skins of all the deer YOU have killed from the woods! YOU have stolen the deer from our mouths, from our children’s mouths! Even now, the pile of their skins is in your tower! Let these people in to your tower and prove me wrong – see if they find them! But they will, won’t they, because you are a LIAR! LIAR! LIAR! LIAR!”
“LIAR! LIAR! LIAR!” Half the crowd was chanting now. But only half.
“Are you standing for this?” he shouted back. “Are you letting a woman’s words sway you? Take your power, take authority into your own hands and destroy her and her minions!”
“Treason! The Governor has authority here, not you! Traitor! But come on! Prove me wrong! Show your magic! Show your authority! Or I accuse you of lying, of stealing our food, of trying to turn us against our rightful governor! I call you Liar! I call you Thief! I call you Traitor!”
But the crowd had turned again. Suddenly I felt very vulnerable, up there on my bladder-floor. And a stone whistled past me.
But then the bunch of toughs marched up and stood in front of me.
“Right!” shouted their commander. “That’s enough! Break it up!” He paused. Enough of the crowd heard him to check a little. “Go home. Now. If you go home now, quietly, the governor will ignore your behaviour. If not, you take your chance.”
Which was all very well, but I wasn’t looking at him or at the crowd. I was looking at Zuggy. He ran inside his tower, and the platform began to rise and close.
“Come down off there, miss!” The commander waved his men across in front of me, to give me a chance to obey. I was delighted to oblige.
I ran back, grabbing my staff and waving Hawk and Stack to me as I went. “Causeway,” I panted. “The causeway to the tower. He’ll escape.” We ran round the crowd, which was milling around aimlessly and paying no attention to us. We got to the black building, and so on to the causeway proper, just as he came out of yet another hidden door in front of us.
He had three choices: fight us, run back into the tower, or swim. And the river was flowing very high and fast.
We stood there, him alone, me with Whisper tucked into my side and the boys just behind – there was no room on the causeway for them to pass.
We stood there.
Suddenly I realised that the crowd had gone quiet. Everyone had turned towards us – the whole crowd was slowly oozing to the edge of the water, staring at us. I was facing my enemy. This was what I had planned for.
We stood there.
Stones, I felt so alone! So exposed! I wanted to pull the cloak more tightly round me, to hide in it. I half went to wrap myself in my arms – but then I remembered – I will not show fear, I will not shame the Tribe.
I saw Zuggy fiddling with something in a fold of his robe – a weapon? I needed to keep the initiative.
“Well?” I called out. “Here is a woman, a boy and two subhumans, no more, blocking your way. Where is your power as a Wizard? Where is your power as a man? Walk past us! Or prove yourself a liar, a thief and a traitor!”
“I need no powers!” he replied. I think he meant it to be scornful. He stepped forward until he was just out of my reach – but only just. “Get off my causeway before I brush you off it!”
“Your causeway?” I laughed. “No. Our causeway. We are the Causeway Tribe – it was for this moment that the Spirits named us.” I heard gasps at that from Hawk and Stack behind me, but I had no time for them just now. “This is our causeway. I, the Seer of hidden things, called by the Spirits to be shaman of the Causeway Tribe, cast you from this place!”
I stepped forward with the palm of my hand forward. He stepped back.
The crowd cheered. Well, a few started it, and some of the rest joined in. It felt like success – to everyone except me
I was just going to push towards him again, to try to keep him off balance, when Stack hissed, “Don’t! He’ll grab your hand!”
So I went to do it, and snatched my hand back instead. I hoped he would fall for it – he didn’t.
I tried to think. First, his issue was that he could probably beat me, but Stack and Hawk were behind me, and on a narrow, slippery causeway almost certainly we would all finish in the river. Second, he had no idea what weapons I had – in particular, what my staff could do. And – finally – I did have a weapon of my own: a wrap of white powder tucked into a fold of my dress. I eased it out into the palm of my hand. Mind, it wouldn’t be that effective; there’d probably only be a small amount breathed in at best – probably no direct effects, but he’ll feel just a shade odd, a shade slow to react, a shade distant. A shade less able to think clearly.
But I was struggling to think clearly myself. I felt suddenly so small! I found myself thinking of myself as a child among grownups – I had to keep saying to myself, you’re a woman; they’re bigger than you because they’re boys, not because they’re older or better than you. And I remembered: I am a woman; I am a shaman; I am strong. I pulled myself up to my full height, and thought tall. I will not giggle, I thought. I am a shaman; I am strong.
I will not giggle. I will not shame the Tribe. Those I could manage, just. I will not show fear? Maybe.
I will face my enemy; I will speak the truth; I will stand alone. And I was facing my enemy; and I had spoken the truth.
But I still felt – exposed, open, I mean – this was what boys are for, to face the enemy alone. I’m only a –
If you once start thinking like that, woman, you’ll never stop. You are a woman! You are a shaman! You are strong!
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” I called. “You feel outnumbered, even though it’s only by subhumans! I really am so sorry to have put you at a disadvantage! And I’m armed, as well!” I passed my staff to Whisper, but without looking at him. “And who knows what magic weapons I have under my cloak!” I untied my – Fihel’s – cloak and passed that back as well – Hawk took it from me. “See, I am unarmed. So why are you afraid?”
There was a breathy noise from the crowd when I took the cloak off. So I did look good! But I gritted my teeth and ignored it, keeping my eyes on Zogzog. “Hawk, Stack, Whisper, move back out of range, please. This is shaman’s business.”
“But keep your slings loaded and out of sight!” I added very softly.
“As the Spirits command,” replied Hawk loudly. “I hope you know what you’re doing!” he added for me to hear.
I still didn’t look round. I heard them edging back from me, and that was all I needed to know. I also heard the crowd fall silent. Well, not silent exactly, but that loud hush that crowds seem to create when it gets exciting.
I stood alone. I have never felt so alone. It still felt unnatural, not to have a man to use as a shield; and suddenly I understood – that this is why a shaman is always alone; she must always trust to the Spirits, not to a man. So if it felt unnatural, did that mean I wasn’t truly a shaman?
Perhaps all this showed in my face, and he thought me off-guard – I don’t know – but he chose that moment to attack, lunging at me with his staff. I backflipped, landing on my feet about a manheight further back – almost hitting Whisper. It wasn’t bad, and I was glad I’d shed my cloak, but it reminded me again what a real nuisance clothes are in this sort of situation. Naked I would have floated over – now I felt like a log being tossed.
“Yes to go!” “Yes that’s it!” shouted from the crowd. Yes of course it was spontaneous – it just happened to sound like Jer and Bral – pure coincidence.
He hadn’t stepped forward, so I stood up in a mocking pose.
“Oh come on!” I called. “I expected a fireball at the very least! Where are your powers, then? Oh of course!” I snapped my fingers. “You left them on that huge pile of deerskins, didn’t you.”
He was preparing something, but I didn’t know what.
“By the way, how did you manage to kill so many deer? Is that what you used your fireballs on – why you’ve no power left?”
He stepped back. “Liar!” he replied. He waved his staff, stepping back again. “Liar!”
He stared at me, holding my gaze, daring me to step forward – and I very nearly did. But I am a shaman – no one holds my gaze, because I see what can not be seen. Like a foot ready to backheel a stone.
So the causeway was booby-trapped. Oh goody.
That flip, clothed – and wet clothed at that – had used quite a bit of my strength. I didn’t fancy another would be a good idea. And anyway, I didn’t want to repeat myself.
“But a woman is inferior to a man, am I not?” I called. “Surely I should let you pass, out of simple respect. And you a civilised man and I a mere savage – Oh my Lord, I beg you to pass!” I stepped back, and mimed a grovel. Someone in the crowd laughed, and several others joined in.
Tappy was doing a great job. Getting musicians on team was a brilliant move on my part. Or would’ve been, if it’d been deliberate.
“Oh, enough of this,” he called, and pointed his staff at the causeway in front of his feet. “ZAGADA GADAZGADA!” And a section of the causeway crumbled and fell, just where he’d been pointing. And not where he backheeled. Since I was expecting it I skipped back easily out of the danger zone.
“The great wizard shows his power!” shouted someone from the crowd. He followed it with a sweep of his staff at head height, hoping of course that I was watching the stones fall.
I wasn’t. I am a woman; I am strong; I am a shaman; I see what can not be seen.
“Nice try!” I called. “But I like your staff. My mere subhuman staff can never compete with such a powerful stick!” I waved. “But even my twig – but perhaps it is just my ignorance – who knows what powers it could contain?”
Whisper was awake for once, and reached my staff forward. I took it in my left hand – since my right hand had the powder concealed in it. “Thank you,” I muttered.
I let my eyes relax and widen. I kept watching, but I also considered the stone that had operated the trap. It was on the side of the causeway away from the audience, and it had been sticking up clear of the others around – not by much, but enough to make an easy target for a heel.
There were two others like it in my range of vision: one almost at my feet, another past him – about a staff length past him. The gap in the causeway was only a pace wide – no problem normally. But so what?
Another thought. The stone operated a section of causeway towards me. So I needed to push the stone that was past him. Great. The impossible one.
Initiative. That’s where I’m winning at the moment.
“So let’s try it out!” I called. I waved it in the air.
He tensed and pulled back, as – nothing happened. I turned to the audience and mimed massive disappointment. There were giggles.
“Whahiye!” I shouted, and waved my staff to the other side. Nothing happened again, and I mimed more disappointment. The giggles spread.
“OOMPALOOMPA!” I bellowed, swung my staff high and wide – and did an even more exaggerated comedy disappointment. The audience laughed.
“ONE – a – TWO – a – THREE – a – FOUR –a –” I chanted, pointing at Tappy, and all four band members. They came in dead on cue with a good loud tune, and the audience laughed as they sang along. Meanwhile I did a little dance of victory on the causeway, hamming it up, beating time to the music with my staff, but never taking my eyes off Zugzwang.
He had dropped his staff to his side, and was standing there, oozing impatience and anger – exactly what I’d hoped for. Of course he was angry at my fooling around; of course I should have been taking this seriously; of course I was treating him with contempt – but he should have seen it for the ploy it was. Not impressive, Zuddy.
He did try, in the end. He began waving his staff in the air, and – I think – shouting something, though you couldn’t hear over the singing. Too little too late. I reckoned I’d already won.
The tune came to its expected climax, and I was bobstepping across the gap and back, with Zizzle apparently incapable of working out what to do. I bobbed over once more, and stood almost nose to nose with him. The audience suddenly realised – almost all of a piece, like crowds do, with just a few people slow on the uptake – that something was happening.
“See,” I shouted, “I’m utterly powerless – just like you!” And I bounced back away from him.
“You may be powerless,” he called back, “because you are a woman – oh yes, a woman who thinks she’s a shaman, but still a woman!” He turned to the crowd. “But I – I am a wizard – a shaman – a true shaman – because men can be shamans, boys can be shamans, can’t they, Whisper!”
“You know my offer, Whisper? You understand? I will teach you to be a shaman, and you do my cleaning and help make food. Yes?”
Whisper took one step forward.
“And I won’t touch you and you are free to go whenever you want. It’s what you want, isn’t it! To be a shaman!”
Whisper took another two steps – past me. I half reached for him, and then pulled my hand back.
“Because she won’t teach you. She says boys can’t be shamans!” You could hear the triumph in Zirakzagus’s voice. I felt sick. Won’t touch him? Huh. Presumably buggery doesn’t count as touching?
But I couldn’t think past that. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to stop Whisper – how to stop my son going away from me.
Whisper took a half step, to the edge of the gap. Then he suddenly looked back at me, and stamped his foot. “WHY can’t boys be shamans? Why can’t they?”
It threw me. You know, I’d never really asked that question. Shamans are supposed to ask questions, and here was a boy – who can’t be a shaman – asking a question I’d never asked. And as I thought – and as time slowed to a crawl around me – I realised he’d done that all the time I’d known him, asked questions I’d never asked. But I still couldn’t answer; it was so obvious that boys can’t be shamans! It’s as stupid as a boy as First Wife, or a girl as Chief, or as…
As stupid as a woman as Champion. Like Crear.
Or as a woman as Singer. Like Tappy.
But it was what I was! It was part of me, that I was a girl, so I could be a shaman! If I threw away even that, what did I have left? What right could I have to call myself a shaman – who has never bothered to walk in the Spiritlands, who doesn’t know who the Spirits are, who doesn’t know how to invoke the Spirits, who doesn’t really believe the Spirits exist. I would be a fake, a liar; I would be no better than my mother.
It threw me. And I just couldn’t think through it – there were so many thoughts shouting in my head, so big a crowd watching me, so little I felt, so weak, and every instant I hesitated just made Zirakzagus’ victory more secure. There was nothing left. I’d lost.
I dropped my hands to my side, as Whisper leapt across the gap to Zirakzagus, and walked past him towards the tower. I could hear the silence from the crowd, almost taste it.
“Oh, don’t worry!” called Zirakzagus. “I’ll treat him just like his own father!” And at that, Whisper suddenly stopped short – as if he’d walked into a wall. And I saw an opening.
“You’ll keep your word – just like his own father?” I called back.
“Of course!” he replied. “Just like his own father.” I was quite sure that Zirakzagus had no idea what he was saying – I could only hope Whisper did. “And I’ll keep my promises – just like his own father!”
It didn’t work. Whisper just didn’t seem to be listening – to him or to me.
I had one last throw – and I hated using it. It was unfair, it was deceitful, it was moral blackmail – yes, I know, and I felt it then. But I was desperate.
“Whisper,” I called, “maybe I am wrong. Maybe you are a shaman. But you who are you listening to? Are you listening to him, to me, or to your own heart? Or are you, truly, listening to the Spirits? If you’re truly listening to the Spirits, if you’re not just doing this because you want it, honestly I won’t stand in your way. But if you are a shaman, it’s the Spirits you must listen to – so look at me, tell me – have you listened to the Spirits?”
At least I got his attention. He stopped. He looked at me, and at Zirakzagus, and at me. He seemed to be going to say something. Then his eyes – even at that distance I could see them change – they did that trick of seeming to look inwards instead of out.
And for the first time I saw him hesitate, and that mulish look faded from his face. He bit his lip. The crowd was deathly still. “Are you a shaman? What do shamans do? Show me you are a shaman. If you do, I’ll teach you properly. I promise.”
“Shamans see…” Whisper’s voice was just a croak. He looked at Zirakzagus. He looked at me. He looked at the causeway.
Shamans see what can not be seen. Whisper kicked a certain stone.
The collapse took Zugzug with it. He never had a chance.
And the crowd went wild. Er, well, there was a shout, followed by scattered clapping, and a few cheers, but basically I don’t think most of them had a clue what was going on – they just liked watching the causeway collapse. Never mind.
“See!” I shouted. “See how the liar falls by his own trap!” Whisper had to take a run, but he made the jump back to me. “See, how he is defeated by a woman and a child! A weakling, that’s all he was, just a weakling talking big!” We turned back along the causeway. “But go and see for yourselves! See the heap of hides from your deer, from your winter food! He can’t stop you now – he can’t lie to you now – go and see!”
Hawk and Stack move aside to let me past – in fact, they moved so far out of my way that they nearly fell in the river themselves. I decided it was probably a compliment.