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Authors: Jack Lasenby

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BOOK: Travellers #1
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I wore a long knife, now, my sling over one shoulder. My bow hung on the nearest donkey. Dragon rode on his perch. I held up my head and strode out.

On the last Journey we lost one sheep in the Onga River, three to wild dogs, one fell off a cliff, and four died because they couldn't keep up. But we had twelve well-grown lambs, and six kids to replace two goats who died. Hagar had taught me about doctoring them with herbs and roots, how to help a ewe give birth, or a goat. I liked doing that.

“I don't know how you'd survive without us,” I said, mothering a lamb on a ewe who didn't want to believe it was her own. The goats were usually more grateful, but they were brainier than sheep. It felt good, seeing our flock grow. How much bigger it could be if we stopped at the Hawk Cliffs! I even had a dream in which the girl and her father lived there with us.

Morning and evening we travelled the twisting valleys, wide flax hats protecting us from the sun which was much angrier in the north. I recognised the hill from which I once looked down and saw a black spot wandering alone. When I told her, Hagar croaked, “Remembering things like that is a map for the Journey.”

“I could find my way.”

“All right, where do we go from here?”

“Through that gap, and along an open stretch with a spring at the end, the one where we camped.”

“Remember the places where there is water, how long it takes to get between them.”

“I remember,” I said, but Hagar went on and on till I ran
away to bring back a couple of goats.

She worried about how much grass the Whykatto would grow next year. “The weather is different. You must be ready to go a different way for grass.” She often said things that didn't make sense. I thought it was because she was old. Another time I'd be surprised by how much she knew.

One day the goats kept climbing the valley walls to find a few seed heads here, some dry leaves there. Bar and Mak had to keep bringing them back down. Hagar and the sheep went ahead through a narrow stretch where there was no feed. The dogs bunched the goats so they trotted after, lamenting between rock walls. We debouched on an open place where Hagar knelt at the entrance to a vertical-walled gully. Jaws chewing, she prayed.

The monsters had returned for their plunder. Wild dogs had scavenged the corpses. Dust lapped the cliffs where the killers slid down. Not a scrap of tentage, not the splinter of a broken arrow nor a bone remained.

Clenched between stone walls, the snare no longer reeked of death, that greasy smoke. The air was dry, silent. I thought of the clamour that day, of how it might have happened many times before and left as little sign. When Hagar cast dust over her head and keened for our dead, I knelt, too. I could hear Rose's voice, the touch of her hand. I put my arm about Hagar and wept bitter tears.

We fled south, looking for clouds. The sun's rage filled the sky at midday. The hills bleached. Lit by the moon's cold light we crossed a high ridge, and the spurs below looked like dead leaves.

I scouted to find grass for a day's grazing, water. We lived on rabbits and herbs. Deer were few and leery. Twice I thought I saw footprints. Then one day near Teekawit I came on some human shit and the ashes of a fire. Two people had eaten a rabbit and slept under a rock.

“The strangers,” said Hagar. “They've split into small
groups because of the dryness. We'd best get through their country.”

The rains came as we pushed the animals down the Onger valley. There was good grass at the place called Towmranoo, by the Wunger River, but we didn't slow until we were safely on the mountain slopes again. The animals fattened, we gathered bark and lichens, and I hunted while Hagar soaked in the hot springs beside the Tungaro River. Lake Top danced, pleased to see us back.

One evening we stood on the Hawk Cliffs, breathed the heady air, looked at the creek below, the spreading grasslands, the trees, and followed Bar down the old zig-zag. The animals settled under the overhanging cliff. Dragon remembered his perch. Nip and I ran through all the caves and down the creek to kneel and drink from the lake. “We can stay much longer this time!” I told her.

We clipped the sheep with the Metal People's shears, dug clays and crystals. The wool was harder to spin that year because the fleece broke in short lengths. “It's because there was so little feed in the Whykatto and the Wiper,” said Hagar. She parted a fleece and showed me the break in growth.

Long ago Nip had come on heat for a second time and mated with Bar and Mak. Hagar said then it would be best if we were not on the move when she had her pups. The animals were spread across the grassy plain. Dragon killed a rabbit, and I carried him home, sated. Hagar called that the pups were coming. I stood Dragon on his perch and he nodded sleepily as I ran.

The night before, Nip had searched through all the other caves before returning to ours and making herself a bed against the back wall. “Sixty-two days,” Hagar said. “I counted them.”

There were two bitches and four males of which one died. I looked at its blunt little head, its sealed eyes, and buried it deep from Nip. Returning, I remembered not tying Dragon
and ran, calling. There was just his gay hood hanging, the stone behind the perch streaked with his droppings. I scrambled along the cliffs, whistling his call. For days I searched every tree, every patch of scrub looking for him trapped by his traces around a branch. The only replies were the wild hawks' “Kek! Kek!” and the lake lapping on its stone.

“It is in a hawk's nature to go free,” Hagar had said when Dragon was little. “It is not a creature you tame. Love him, but accept it that one day he will fly away.” I talked to his picture and slept with it in my hand. I thought it might make him return.

The first-born pup, one of the bitches, opened its eyes on the tenth day; the last-born, the other bitch, opened hers about the fifteenth.

“We'll swap the Metal People a bitch and two dogs,” said Hagar, “and keep a bitch and a dog for ourselves. Bar and Mak can teach them. We don't really need two bitches, but you never know.”

Nip was uneasy and snarled at Bar and Mak, but they just sniffed the pups and kept their distance. I drew their likenesses on the wall of the cave. And I drew a hawk flying above.

When Hagar said it was time to leave I asked, “What if Dragon comes back and we're not here?” I still looked for him.

Our last evening the lake was black, the mountains white. The animals had barely touched the wide grass. I brought them down the green zigzag, whistling and calling one last time.

We sat in the cave that night, the fire leaping and falling. I was sad at leaving the Hawk Cliffs, all that good grass, and Dragon. I wanted to revisit the Swapping Ground, to see the girl and her father again, but then I wanted to return and winter by the lake.

“There was a young man, a great hunter,” said Hagar. I
glanced at her. Her eyes were closed as if she thought as she told the story. “The animals he killed fed and clothed his people, but they increased until the hunter had to go further to find enough animals to feed them. If the young man had a fault, he was vain of his skill as a hunter.”

I was playing with some knucklebones, scattering, tossing, and catching them. They lay on the sandy floor of the cave, flickering white as the flames lifted and fell.

“The hunter travelled far,” said Hagar, “and came to a lake bitter with salt and so big it had no other side. A young woman sat and gazed into the water's mirror. She looked deep into the reflection of her own eyes, lifting, admiring her beautiful, long, black hair, running the comb through, leaning forward to see herself. The hair in her reflection seemed lifted and combed by the bitter water, swept out, and carried free to fall down her back. If the young woman had a fault, she was vain of her long, black hair. She smiled into her eyes in the water and saw the young hunter reflected there.”

Smoke from the fire swirled like long grey hair around Hagar's head.

“The young man looked down. Reflected in his own eyes he saw the young woman's eyes looking up at his. They fell in love. That summer they lived by the bitter water with the girl's mother, a crone with wrinkled face and wispy hair.”

Hagar cackled to herself.

“The young man hunted, and the young woman looked at her reflection and combed her long, black hair. When the hunter returned with animals, the women cooked their flesh, made clothes from the skins.

“The two young people were very happy. But each day the young man had to travel further to find enough animals.

“They had a greater problem, one they did not know about. The old crone lusted after the young man.

“One day she said to her daughter, ‘Sit on this stone, between my knees, and I will comb and plait your long, black hair. I will make you beautiful for your lover.'

“The vain young woman sat between her mother's knees. In moments she was dead, strangled with her own long black hair.

“The old woman whetted her knife on the stone. Delicately, delicately, she skinned her daughter's body, taking great care, so the skin came off the head with the long black hair attached. She pulled the young skin over her own body and sewed it tight with stitches so small they vanished. She smoothed its beautiful mask over her own face. The mother's eyes peeped out between her daughter's eyelids. Her teeth smiled between her daughter's lips. She combed out her daughter's long black hair, plaited and wound it around her head. And she laid herself naked on the bed of furs in the tent, and waited like a snare.

“The young man returned in his canoe with the bodies of the last animals, his hair and clothes wet with the salty water. He ran into the tent to embrace his wife. From their bed of furs her beautiful face laughed up, long black hair plaited around her head, arms raised to him. He threw himself upon her and they made love. The salt water dripped from his hair and clothes. As it dried, the salt tightened the skin of the face he kissed.

“A wrinkle ran across that beautiful face. The young man scratched with his fingernail. The mask cracked open, and he was staring down into the eyes of the old crone laughing, lusting, gloating. The young man fled, horrified. He ran and ran, many days, until one morning he found himself back among the tents of his people. They were all dead, of starvation.

“But the old woman gave birth to a new world of animals: goat, sheep, dog, and donkey; she gave birth to rabbit, hare, and deer. She gave birth to all the fishes of the
rivers and lakes, and to all the birds: mynah, pigeon, magpie, quail, and hawk. She gave birth to the rivers, the mountains, and the plains. And when all was ready she gave birth to the people who were to live in the new land. ‘Be Travellers!' she said, and they saw the Animals' Dance and began the first Journey.”

Hidden under her black scarf and dress, Hagar huddled by the fire like a hawk. I looked at the cave wall. I wanted to draw the crone's story. But before dawn next morning we loaded the donkeys and left the Hawk Cliffs behind.

Bright eyes peering over their basket on top of a donkey, the pups yelped and trod each other. Nip looked up at their worried little faces and replied. While the animals spread and grazed, I swung them down for a feed and a run.

I popped them back in their basket and whistled, but it took ages getting the animals going again. Hagar had wandered after herbs. She took her time. Even Bar and Mak forgot their jobs and sniffed after rabbits. I had to yell for them to chivvy along the goats who seemed determined to hang back. I got the sheep in a bunch and packed the goats in behind them. We were moving at last when two of the donkeys began nipping each other. While I separated them, the goats broke and spread again, their evil eyes alight. Goats love to make trouble.

“There’s no hurry, Ish,” Hagar laughed.

I snorted.

“Who wanted to stay at the Hawk Cliffs?” she asked. I looked quickly but she kept her face straight. I yelled at Bar, at Mak again.

“You’re upsetting everyone. Why don’t you go out in front,” Hagar suggested. “Send Bar back to me.”

I said nothing, just walked on. Then, as if it was my own idea, I took my bow off the donkey and walked out in front.

“You might as well walk back with Hagar for all the good you’re doing,” I told Bar, and he cut away, ears and tail down.

The sheep followed me. They need someone to give them a lead. The goats fed along behind them, no trouble. Hagar and the donkeys followed. Alone at the front, I didn’t turn
and look because I knew they were all laughing behind my back.

“Of course I want to stay at the Hawk Cliffs!” I said aloud. I knocked down some tall thistles with my bow but stopped just in time. Hagar would never let me forget if I broke it.

For a year I had carried a picture in my mind: the girl who fell out of a tree, the lovely movement as she put Hagar’s scarf around her neck. Although I did not want to think about it too closely, she was replacing Rose in my mind. I wanted to see her again, to tell her Dragon had disappeared. I felt their images on the disc. And I had carried a picture of the girl’s father in my mind. He smiled, and his voice was warm. When I thought of him, saw him in my mind, I saw and thought of my father.

Each morning Hagar and the animals got slower and slower. At last I smelled the sulphurous air, saw the steam, the swept white sand of the Swapping Ground. We laid out our goods, drew the things we needed, and tied three pups in the shade. Next day metal swaps had replaced our goods, and there was another disc, a dog’s head on one side, a boy’s on the other. There were more of the little marks under the pictures.

I kept looking around as we loaded the donkeys, but Hagar said, “They’re not coming. I saw your drawings. You helped her when she fell out of a tree, that’s why her father brought her, to give you the disc, to thank you. They would like to speak, but their people won’t let them show themselves again. They survive by keeping hidden.”

She made it sound reasonable, but I was angry. Everyone but me seemed keen to get moving. I hung back, fussing with my donkey’s harness as Hagar and the animals moved off. Still nobody appeared. At last I drew a hawk in the white sand, and trotted away. That night I added the disc to the chain around my neck. It helped, but I felt empty. I didn’t realise Hagar was disappointed, too.

There was some rain in the Whykatto, but we had to move for grass. It was different, Hagar said, in the old days when we could camp all winter by the waterhole and see the Animals’ Dance.

In spring we crossed the Narrower Ford with two donkey foals. Bar and Mak had turned white around their muzzles, but the pups were grown and learning their jobs. I looked at Dragon’s image, wondered where he flew. And I looked at the girl’s. Would I ever see her again? I did not let Hagar see me looking in case she laughed.

Each winter the Whykatto got drier. We left earlier, stayed longer at the Hawk Cliffs. The grass was richer up there, the rain generous. Several Journeys went by and I almost forgot the dream of Orklun. I looked each year for the girl and her father at the Swapping Ground, but they did not appear. Our flock grew. We had the wool and hair to weave many more blankets, even a new tent. Hagar praised my designs. I kept the Travellers’ diamonds but worked in new shapes I saw in my mind.

They passed so quickly, the travelling years. “I’m getting too old to keep up,” Hagar complained. But she kept us going, measuring the days with her spindle. Once she said, “We blame each other for everything that goes wrong. As long as you understand it’s because there’s just the two of us…”

Like Rose, the girl who fell out of a tree began to seem an uncertain memory. I saw her sometimes, naked in my dreams, for I was growing into a man now. Hagar explained the changes in my body, how a man lies with a woman, how she makes a child within herself.

“Like the animals!” I said. It made their behaviour understandable, the rams and the ewes, the goats, the donkeys, Bar, Mak, and Nip. I had seen them coupling all my life, but had not realised it was the same way people make their young. It made sense of my dreams of the girl, but I
kept them a secret from Hagar when I woke and remembered.

“Is that what Karly Campy did to Rose?” I asked as we neared the Swapping Ground one Journey.

Hagar nodded. “And that’s why she and the young women were carried off after Tayamoot. They were the lucky ones. You would have been killed because you were a boy, me because I’m old.”

We rode on. “Then why put baby girls outside to die, if the men wanted young women? Remember you told me about your daughters?”

Hagar smiled grimly. “Once they’re big enough, men are attracted by young women, just as women are attracted by young men, like the crone in the story I once told you. But men are stronger. They will kill for a woman.”

“Will a woman kill for a man?”

Hagar said nothing, just cackled. I felt uncomfortable and remembered how Karly’s father died.

We finished setting out our goods and were leaving the Swapping Ground when the dogs barked. The girl appeared out of the scrub. A dog followed her, one like Bar. I felt dizzy.

“Don’t go!” the girl said. “I want to to talk.” Her voice was urgent. My face felt hot as I ran and separated the dogs.

Tara, that was her name, said she had wanted to speak to us each year. “I watched you,” she said, “but my father made me promise I wouldn’t let you see me.”

I told her my name and Hagar’s.

“I know them,” said Tara. “I hid and listened to you speaking. I heard you call Hagar an old bitch once!” I looked away, and she laughed, and Hagar cackled.

Tara said she had called her pup Tuk. She asked me about Dragon, and I told her. I described the great lake, Top, the Hawk Cliffs, the stream with its hot springs, the caves. She asked me about my mother and father and said her mother
was dead, too.

“Your father doesn’t like you speaking to us. Why are you here?” Hagar asked.

Although I had been staring into her eyes, I had not really seen Tara. She turned to Hagar. I saw the brown flush of her cheek, her shining hair, the curve of her eyelash. She nodded towards the scrub. Almost invisible in his deer skin tunic which blended into the grey and brown her father raised his hand. I saw his smile.

“Look for us tonight.” Tara joined him, and they vanished in their eerie way. I stood thinking I could still see her, hear her soft voice.

“Wake up!” said Hagar.

Nip barked that evening, and they appeared silently. They brought green-leaved plants we had not seen. We shared our food with them, ate the new vegetables. They were good raw, like some of the herbs we gathered.

“We have permission to visit you,” Dinny, the man, told us in his kindly voice. “We were almost killed out, so it is safer to trade through the Swapping Ground, to let nobody see us. It has taken years for our old people to be sure there are only two of you. They said to thank you for the pups and your other presents.”

Year by year Hagar had given me something special to lay to one side of the presents beside our swapping goods, something a girl might like, a length of fine material, a shawl, a sleeveless jerkin. I had tried to weave something for her, but could not equal Hagar’s finest work.

My weaving lacked something. Looking at Hagar’s gave me the feeling I used to get when Dragon came down the sky, like the feeling when I looked at Tara. It made me draw in my breath. I wanted to tell her about that, too, but there was little time.

While Hagar and Dinny talked, I told Tara about the Travellers. I would have liked to ask about her people but
knew they were secretive of necessity.

They returned next morning. Dinny had been told to ask if we could produce more woollen things. He was interested in what Tara had told him of the great lake, the Hawk Cliffs, and asked her many questions. I wanted to listen to him, to watch him, but I wanted to speak to Tara even more.

“My father thinks we must plant more trees to bring back the rain,” she said. “He wants to live a freer life, not be hidden here.”

“What about you?” I asked.

She glanced away from my urgent stare. “I want to see your lake.”

My heart bumped like the time I stole Dragon in the bag on my chest. I looked at her bare arm, the curve of her breast, wanted to touch her. I liked being near to her father, but felt something stronger towards Tara. Suddenly I understood why men might kill each other over a woman. I thought I loved Tara.

“We are going to stay at the Hawk Cliffs,” I told her.

“Ish is young,” said Hagar. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

I looked back and waved to Tara until we passed from sight. It seemed wrong, leaving her behind again.

It was Hagar insisted we take up the Journey. She found the walking and riding harder, but she was inexorable. The Journey must be made because we were the Travellers.

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