Read Travellers #1 Online

Authors: Jack Lasenby

Travellers #1 (3 page)

BOOK: Travellers #1
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Karly Campy had noticed Bar missing and returned to finish me off. The boys walked, slings loaded, as if about to kill a rabbit. They expected to find me following their tracks. The last place they would expect me to go was into the dry western hills. I rolled and tumbled down the back of that slope and scrambled up another.

While the moon lasted I fled, hobbling, tripping, sliding. There were only wisps of grass between shingle and rock slabs. As the sky lightened next morning, and I climbed again, an ear flicked. My eye picked the movement. A rabbit nibbling.

I wriggled backward over a rise, coat rucking up, and licked my finger to try the wind. Tossed in the air, dust drifted behind. The rabbit couldn’t scent me. I took my knife and sheath off the belt, put a stone in the bottom of its loop, swung it around my head and let go one end. The soft leather worked well as a sling. That’s what clever Rose had meant me to see.

I crawled back, but the rabbit had gone. Cursing, I stood. It bounded from behind a rock. I swung the sling, fired, and missed. Sickness grabbed my stomach. “Ish,” I hissed, “don’t lose your temper. Look before you move.”

Learning not to be upset if things don’t work at first is a skill that comes slowly. I had to find out it was a waste of time growling at myself. Hungry and thirsty, sore and scratched, I kept looking for a movement, the bob of a tail, blink of an eye. When I found water I drank myself full and slept in the shade of a boulder while the sun raged. Late in the afternoon I woke, drank, and killed the rabbit’s fat
brother. Its solid weight in my hand made the blood rush to my head. I shook, took a breath of dry air to shout, and reminded myself I was hunted, too.

Retreating west behind yet another row of hills, collecting dry thistles, I found a patch of scrub. Deer and goats had browsed level its stubby twigs, rabbits had chewed bark and roots. Underneath was dead wood, white as splintered bone.

I took the stick Rose had sent, the short one with the charred point, and the bone with the little recess. The wild dog had stolen the leather cord, and I did not dare use the fine snares. Instead I spat on a gritty stone, rubbed the knife sharp, and cut a strip along one side of my father’s broad belt.

I bent Rose’s springy stick and tied the leather strip like a bowstring. Pressing one end of the bow on the ground, I made a loop in the strip and passed through it the pointed stick with its blackened end. Its base I set in the recess in the piece of bone, held that between my teeth, and spun the point on a bit of wood, drawing the bow back and forth with my left hand. A tiny cone of dust turned dark with heat. Fingers trembling, I fed into it shreds of thistle stalks, dried seed heads, slivers, shavings of wood.

The Travellers always carried a crock of live embers in peat. I kept working the bow, spinning the stick, feeding shavings into the dust. The bow-drill vibrated through the bone into my teeth. There was a smear of smoke. A red dot grew into a minute tongue. Tremulous I breathed on the lick of flame. One clumsy jerk with a shaving knocked the tiny fire dead. I closed my eyes, said nothing, and began again.

The dry splinters burnt with a colourless flame and no smoke. When there was a bed of coals I laid upon it the rabbit’s split-open carcass. My mouth watered as it spat and cooked. I busied myself putting the sheath back on the belt and doing it up around my waist. I stowed all the pieces of my fire drill back in their pockets. It kept me from wanting
to try the meat. More time went in selecting and cutting a stick from the tallest bush, crooked but the best there, and jamming it into the spear head. I looked. The rabbit was done.

A great shout slammed so loud it shook the hills. Terrified I speared the grilled rabbit. Up another hill to the west, through a gap between its shoulders and down its back I scampered, crying, swinging my gammy leg, stuffing down hot meat. I wasn’t going to lose it to Karly Campy.

I kept going, until the moon sank, deeper into the treeless hills. I laughed instead of crying. I had even thought to stuff the rabbit’s skin down my front as I ran. I was going to use my temper, its energy, to beat Karly Campy.

Though the wood was so dry it burnt smokeless, his dogs must have smelled it, that and the fragrance of cooking rabbit. I shivered. Still, I had escaped them. But why had he come back? He knew I would die alone. He must have beaten Rose, made her tell him she had sent food and tools to help me survive. I would have to vanish among these pitiless hills until he was certain I had died.

At the end of a morning’s or evening’s march when people clustered around the camp-fire, the storyteller used to point west and tell of misshapen goblins who came running and shouting, stole our goats and sheep, killed our dogs and people, and disappeared. When I asked him, my father said it was true somebody once came out of the western hills and attacked the Travellers, but that was a long time ago.

“What would they live on, Ish? If they are like us they would have animals to feed. Rabbits and a few deer, they’re probably the only things living in the west now,” he said. Even so, he looked at those bony hills. All of us did because of the old stories.

I worked to the top of a ridge and slept. Towards dawn there was a cold wind. I woke, pulled up my feet under my father’s coat. My spear lay beside me. My knife belt was buckled on. If Karly Campy came I was ready. I thought of Rose
and cried myself back to sleep.

There was little in that western country but shingle and rock. An occasional spring seeped and died in sand. There were deer droppings and the narrow slots of their tracks, but I saw few. I killed enough rabbits to keep alive. Sometimes in a dampish gully there was a patch of the green stuff they fed upon, and I gathered enough to eat. By watching where the rabbits scratched I dug and found red roots to chew.

I spent the first few days desolated, cut off from all I knew. As my split lip healed, as the bruises vanished, and my body toughened in the daily search for food and water, I grew to accept the terror of loneliness. What saved me was the thought of seeing Rose again, the hope my father was alive.

I was lucky to survive. People don’t like to believe luck plays an important part in their lives. We say the right prayer to the gods, do the correct thing, take the best decision, yet bad luck mocks our plans. That was how life changed, Rose’s and mine, the day we crossed the Narrower Ford.

I drew on a rock wall with charcoal, my father dying in the ford and everything that had happened since. I drew it from above as it might have looked to a hawk. Karly Campy and the big boys as they chased me. Bar and his load, the rabbit, the bow-drill, and my father’s coat. Drawing him might bring Bar again. Last of all I drew a hawk with a face like Rose’s, her eyes.

I had been many days in the bone-coloured hills. Karly Campy must think I was dead. In the dim light one dawn I crossed the talus below a shattered cliff, picking my way between the knife-edged fragments, thinking how tough my feet had become since leaving the soft valley floor. I reached an open strip of sand. Head down I found myself staring at the tracks of people and donkeys heading east. The monsters out of the west. It had been theirs, not Karly Campy’s, the shout that slammed between the hills.

I was terrified of the monsters out of the west. Yet seeing their tracks was almost as good as seeing my own people again. Dust had blown and trickled to fill the hoof marks. I broke open a lump of donkey’s dung. It was dry inside. They were at least two days ahead.

There was good shade in which I slept, waking once and looking at the tracks again. My hat had worn out, so I drew the coat over my head. I grinned, patted the marks, and raced back into the shade.

Escaping, I had kept the sun on my right. In the evening I followed the tracks, the sun sinking on my left. When they led over a hill I crawled to its rim and lifted my head slowly. No one would see it move against the sky.

Most of the way the monsters had ridden along the ridges, coming down each morning to camp in shade by springs. They knew the country well. They slept on the ground. Their fires were thrown together. They were moving fast. If they left any scraps, their dogs had cleaned them up.

Where flax grew by one of the springs I made myself a new hat. Others, too, had cut the broad leaves.

Some evenings later I sprawled on a rock lip overlooking a long valley. Tracks, dung, and a shadow of stubble showed many animals had passed that way recently. It must be the Travellers, the line of their Journey. I was overjoyed and forgot about the monsters and their tracks.

I dropped behind the hill’s heave, traversed its back, and crawled to spy again. Down in the valley something flicked. I picked up the movement again by looking out of the corner of my eye, the way I had learned to spot rabbits. A little
wind plucked, lifted, and dropped something white. Another and another. They couldn’t be leaves or grass; our animals scavenged everything. And because I had grown up moving with the flocks I knew they were wisps of wool caught on thorns and twigs. When my father was the leader, every bit was collected by children and women coming behind. The Travellers wasted nothing, just as Karly Campy had decided they would not waste food on a lame boy.

I followed the rutted tracks, pellets and dung, the crusted spot where an animal had pissed, plucking every abandoned strand. Perhaps, I thought for an insane moment, Karly Campy might accept me back if I collected all the wool left behind.

Following our animals we got to know their tracks. Now I saw Jokey’s and Tarky’s and recognised footprints, children’s, and bigger ones. There was one print which I knelt and traced with my fingers, then laid my cheek against. I paced out the next print of the same foot, and the next. I had to sit until I could see again.

By the time it was too dark to keep going, I had collected and stuffed a handful of wool down the front of my tunic. A few rough stitches with Rose’s bone needle, and the rabbit skins made a bag for it. I found water, made a fire from dried dung, and slept, my head on the wool.

For several marches I followed. Where the track wound through a defile I climbed the hill to the east and climbed along behind its crest. I crawled to the top now and then and scrutinised the valley. Karly Campy must think me dead, but I had learned my lesson. I followed cautiously. One evening I climbed the opposite wall of the valley and found other tracks. They were made by the monsters I had forgotten, moving out of sight, hidden below the hills’ rim. They were following the Travellers, too.

Next morning I found where the Travellers had camped by a pool, driving in stakes, penning the animals with a fragile
line of ropes and staffs. Where people had slept, the ground was pressed flat. Searching for any sign of Rose I found a shepherd’s staff left behind. My father always made the children search each campsite before leaving. He said they saw things because they were closer to the ground and had sharper eyes.

I tried to remember how my father did things. I talked to him and Rose as I walked. It helped.

The crooked old stick I threw away and shaped the staff to fit into my spear head. It would be strong enough for a walking stick, like a third leg. I tramped on feeling strong.

It was still early that morning when I saw a black spot move ahead. Somebody coming back for the staff! I dropped, rolled out of sight, and swung on my spear around the back of a hill to the east. Completing a great half-circle I came back ahead of where the spot had been. A set of footprints were clear in the trampled dust, not going back but following the Travellers. As I knelt to examine them a magpie croaked.

I followed the footprints up a gully and saw the black spot below, much bigger now. Another magpie croaked. They were watching the dark figure, too.

It toiled and hobbled slowly as if it would never reach the spot where the shadow of some trees was a black pool. It would soon be time to shelter from the sun’s anger.

Dodging from rock to rock, hiding, running, and hiding again, I caught up on the figure that never paused, never looked back. It struggled forward. I had recognised the footprints. Now I was certain who it was by her clothes, her shape, the way she walked. I caught up, called her name, and she looked up at the heights, tottered another step, and fell.

I turned her over, saw the witch-like face, and swung up my spear. Old Hagar was Karly Campy’s mother, one of the Travellers who had left me behind. She sprawled unconscious, dusty, lips cracked. I forgot she could kill me just by
opening her wild hawk’s eyes, and ran to the trees. Sure enough there was a damp gully behind. Pulling out rocks, scooping away sand, I cleared a trickle, soaked my bundle of wool.

I ran back and wet Hagar’s lips, squeezed a few drops in her mouth, pulled the scarf over her face. A second and a third time I ran back up the gully. As more drops got into her mouth, from somewhere in her throat came a little click. I held her up, squeezed more water. Her hard, old tongue and cracked lips moved like a beak, that movement a bird makes when it swallows. I made several trips before her eyes glared open. Her mouth moved.

“It’s all right, Hagar.”

Her lips shaped a word. My name creaked like stones rubbed together. “Ish?”

“You fell. We must get out of the sun.”

One arm around her, I climbed up my spear, dragging Hagar with me. We hobbled like some humped, four-legged animal. Our shadow looked so odd I snorted. I had to leave her and make two more trips for water before we reached the trees.

We camped by the tiny pool, trees keeping off the sun, a fire warming us at night. Hagar had a metal bowl slung on her girdle, and I stewed rabbits with the green leaves. She sucked a little broth. Her strength returned, and I kept a brew simmering, adding more meat and leaves. The second day there were marks in the sand where she crawled a few yards away to piddle while I was checking my snares.

Hagar said little, just lay under my coat and dozed. She was bony, not soft to snuggle against like Rose, but it was better than sleeping alone. One morning I returned from my snares and she was stumbling back with some herbs.

“They flavour the meat,” she said and was silent again. That afternoon when we had eaten she stood and said, “Come on.”

“Follow them?”

“Can you think of anything better to do?” Her voice cracked as if her throat was still dry. And we took up the Journey, a short march that evening, another next morning. I wanted to ask why she had been alone but waited for her to speak.

“I saw Karly hit you, Ish,” she said. “I saw him leave you behind.”

I said nothing. She was using my spear to walk.

“He told the people we could not afford a cripple. He wanted Rose.”

“I know.”

“You know nothing. Listen. My son was jealous of your father. It wasn’t an accident. He killed Hawk in the ford. Now your father is dead, and Karly has Rose. He got rid of you because you were Hawk’s son. And he got rid of me, too.”

“Got rid of you?”

“Left me behind.”

It was the way of the Travellers. Some afternoon when the donkeys were loaded, when the flocks were sent ahead to browse and meet at the next campsite, when the last people followed the nibbling animals, Hagar had been left behind. Nobody looked back. She sat by the dying fire and watched them go. Her time had come.

“But my father said you know so much.”

“My son did not think so,” said Old Hagar, walking more strongly. She passed the spear back, wrapped my wool around her left arm, and started spinning as she walked. The spindle rose and fell, the wool teasing out between her fingers.

“Karly gave the order to hurry. He was scared of something. I couldn’t keep up, but he wouldn’t let me ride a donkey.” Her throat clicked.

“There are monsters in the western hills,” I said. “They
were riding donkeys, fast.”

“Tooey thought he saw somebody move on the skyline. Perhaps Karly hoped they would waste time climbing down to cut my throat.”

“The Travellers might not know they’re being followed. We should warn them!”

“I can’t go any faster. And you couldn’t reach them in time, Ish.”

If the monsters killed Karly Campy and those other boys, it would serve them right. And the other Travellers? None helped me when Karly Campy left me behind. Yet they were my people. Above all there was Rose. I picked more strands of wool and began another bundle, distracting myself.

I looked at Hagar, at her eyes which no longer frightened me, at the lines from the corners of her mouth, her hands with their looped veins, bony fingers, bossed knuckles. Their skin was patched with splashes of pigment, crackled like a bowl that has been in the fire.

“Think of what they do in a lifetime,” she said. “These hands lit fires, cooked, wove a thousand blankets and carpets. They helped children into the world. When you are old,” Hagar said, “look at your hands, Ish, and think of what they have done, good things and bad. Hands are like faces. Every scar a story.”

When we were little we used to listen to Hagar’s stories. As we got older, we thought she was crazy, a witch. Suddenly I thought we should have listened more.

I suppose it was because we had both been left behind. I felt torn by the wish to help Rose, by the fear the Travellers might not know they were being shadowed by monsters, by the certainty I could do nothing. But I no longer felt the despair that dragged at my mind when I was driven out.

Hagar made no complaint at being left behind, had not expected it so soon, that was all. And though the signs became increasingly clear that our people were hurrying under
threat of attack, she said there was nothing we could do. It was already too late to save the Travellers.

She talked and – in between going ahead, spying out another stretch of the track, and coming back – I listened. Sometimes I returned in the middle of a story. She would not go back and begin it again. She kept on to its end and then told it once more as if knowing I wanted to hear it all. And so we advanced, hobbling, limping. We could never catch up to the Travellers now. We were under sentence of death ourselves. I wanted to help our people against the monsters, make sure Rose was safe. But as Hagar said, what else could we do? We were not hawks to fly on easy wings.

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