Authors: Jack Lasenby
As we toiled along something glinted, the broken shaft of an arrow. A lucky find because the head was metal.
“Strange,” said Hagar.
I looked at her.
“Something about the way the head is set on the shaft.”
What was strange to me was that somebody had left it behind, hadn’t come back and searched until they found it. Even broken, any arrow was worth saving, especially a metal-headed one.
“Karly Campy, he left you behind?”
“Travellers must keep up or be left behind.”
“But you were his mother!”
“Even our mothers must be left behind some day.”
“My father wouldn’t have left you behind.”
“Even he would have had to, sooner or later. It happens to us all.”
“Karly tried to kill me.”
Hagar was silent.
“He is cruel. Everyone is scared of him.”
“Some people are cruel,” said Hagar, “I don’t know why. Perhaps they are born that way. I loved him, was kind to him, but he was cruel to me. And Mar his father was cruel, too.” She gave her dry chuckle. It seemed terrible she should laugh.
I wanted to ask another question, but Hagar began telling a story. Part of me wanted to listen; another part wanted to hurry; and yet another part of me knew we could not alter the Travellers’ fate.
“Cruelty is a strange thing,” said Hagar. We walked on.
“There was an old man and an old woman who lived where the world freezes to ice and snow, where in winter there is no sun.”
“There are places different to this North Land of ours, Ish.”
“Somewhere far behind our mountains, in another country called the South Land, there is a mountain which eats its sun each winter. That is why at the end of summer it gets cold in the south and we must go back to the Whykatto. My mother told me that, and her mother told her.” Hagar walked in silence. I had broken into her story, and she might not tell it again.
My father, too, had talked of that cold country the other side of our mountains. When I asked if anyone lived there, he said they would have a different life.
“You would have to wear heavy clothes and keep fires going,” he said. “The animals could not live there without grass. When you are a man we will go south to see what lies the other side of the mountains. Don’t tell anyone I said that,” he whispered, one finger in front of his mouth. “We are supposed to want to go north, back to Orklun!” He grinned, and I kept his secret. Now, when Hagar talked of people who didn’t see the sun for half the year, I remembered.
“Tell me the story?”
“Over here. We can sit on this rock,” Hagar said. “Once I could walk all night. Perhaps Karly was right to leave me behind.” She seemed to think it was funny. “My legs are tired, and that leg of yours, Ish, it gets tired.”
“Tell me the story?”
“Ah, that’s better. Well, in that sunless world of ice and snow, they lived on seals the old man caught.”
“An animal that lives in the great lake called the sea. It is half-fish and has thick fur and fat to keep it warm. The old woman made clothes from its skin and burned its oil to cook its meat and to light and warm their snow-house.”
I wanted to ask what a snow-house was but didn’t dare interrupt again.
“The time of year came when the seals disappeared, and the old people lived on frozen meat. But the seals were slow returning, and the old man and his wife ate their last food. They had a little oil but saved it. Starving they sat in the dark of their snow-house and waited for the seals.
“Their daughter arrived with her husband and a fat baby girl, to wait for the seals. They crawled through the tunnel into the old people’s snow-house with their baby, left her wrapped in warm furs, and went out to build their own snow-house.
“The young woman shoved up the last block of snow. Her husband trimmed it with his snow-knife and fitted it into the hole in the roof. The young woman went back into the old people’s house to feed the baby.
“But her warm furs were cold and empty. The cooking pot over the stone oil lamp was still warm. There was a smell of boiled meat. The old man wiped his mouth. He and his wife stared at their daughter. A long time she stood silent, staring at them, then returned to her husband.
“More starving people arrived for the seal hunting. They built snow-houses and waited, too. One day, the daughter’s husband saw a seal on the ice. He called the old man, and with the other men they drove their dog-sleds towards it. All the way from the snow-houses a cruel wind raked their backs. Their thin bodies ached with hunger and cold.
“The seal felt their steps through the ice and dived down its hole, but the men knew it must come up for air. They found all its breathing holes and someone stood at each
with a spear. At last the young man heard the seal rising to breathe. He drove his spear down the hole and dragged up the seal. The others ran laughing. He cut out its liver. The first slice he tossed on the ice for the gods, then cut one for each man.
“As the grandfather bent for his, the men seized him. They stripped the old cannibal. His son-in-law pushed his boots, his clothes, his knife, and his spear down the seal hole, under the ice. They turned the naked old man into the ranged wind and let him go.
“He ran, skin blackening with frostbite to his snow-house, crawled into the tunnel. At its far end, at the entry to the house itself, he arched his body to climb over the sill but, frozen stiff by that wind, his backbone snapped as loud as a whip crack.
“The people closed the entrance with a slab of ice and drove away behind their dogs. They never went near that place again.”
Hagar was silent.
“What happened to the old woman?”
I thought awhile. “What are sleds?”
“Two long branches laid side by side and joined with short branches. Their ends turn up in front so they do not dig into the snow. The dogs drag them across the ice.”
“If we had a sled,” I said, “you could ride on it.”
“We’d need dogs,” said Hagar, “and the ground would have to be frozen. My feet are rested, Ish. What about your leg?”
“It only gets tired sometimes. Rose made it stronger when I was born.” I limped beside Hagar and thought of two old people eating a baby.
When I had been on my own in the western hills I used to tell myself stories, the ones I heard in the Travellers’ camp at night. Our father always told stories. And Rose. I wondered
if she told stories to anyone now.
“That old man and woman, they were cruel.”
“They were,” said Hagar. “And they were punished for it.”
“Are people always punished for cruelty, Hagar?”
I felt better when she said that.
That evening I killed two rabbits with my sling. Hagar was deft with Rose’s bow-drill. She pressed down so it smoked quickly, and she seemed to find dry twigs everywhere. Hagar knew so many things it cheered me just to see her.
Her eyes glistened at the needles Bar had brought, and she stitched all the dried rabbit skins together in a blanket that kept us warm. “When it rains,” she said, “the skins will rot unless we cure them. Nights are cold in the mountains. Lucky you’re good with your sling!” She gave the croak that meant she was laughing.
“Lucky you’re good with your needle!” I said, and we laughed together.
“I’ll teach you,” she said. “You’ve got a lot to learn if you’re going to survive on your own.”
“I won’t be on my own,” I told her. “We’ll find Rose. I’ll steal some animals, and we’ll travel together, the three of us.”
Next evening as we walked I split the broken shaft of the arrow that Hagar said was strange, whittled away till only the head was left. Our metal arrowheads had a tang out the back that fitted tight down a hole drilled in the wooden shaft. We poured beeswax over the joint and lashed it with fine thread. This arrowhead had been fixed the same way but, instead of being square with the head, the tang was diamond-shaped.
“I knew it was different. Ish, those people from the west. Their arrows were like that!”
“It makes the arrow spin and fly straighten. Before you were born, they attacked us. Your father trapped the strangers and killed many of them. I had forgotten their arrows were made that way. You know what this means?”
I stared at her.
“Your monsters are attacking the Travellers, firing arrows from the hilltops. That’s why they’re hurrying, leaving the wool on the thorns, Ish.”
We walked on, Hagar’s chin moving as if she was chewing or mumbling. I wondered why my father had not told me he had killed the attackers. There were many things I wanted to ask him.
Later we picked up two more arrows, both of them whole. The tracks now showed just people’s toes, not their heels. They were running. The donkeys’ tracks were the same. It was easy to see they were being chased. Off to one side something flapped in the wind, but we kept going, forgetting we were in danger ourselves. We wanted to know what had happened to our people.
We found them in a closed arm of the valley. The attackers could only approach from the open side. That is what Karly Campy must have thought when he drove in the animals, pitched tents across the mouth, and made a stand.
I sniffed with disgust at the reek of ashes and something more pungent, cloying. A donkey lay across the track, the tendons of its hind legs slashed. By the arcs in the dust, it had scrabbled with its front legs, lifting and dropping its head until it died.
The flimsy barrier of tents had been flung across the mouth of a blind gully. Staffs and ropes rigged further up to pen the animals. But the tents were ashes, the Travellers’ bodies charred by fire, swollen by the sun. Wild dogs snarled over them until I drove the brutes off.
Karly Campy sprawled, head chopped in two. Behind him lay Mor, Heka, and Jonny. Karly Campy’s two older wives were half-buried in the ashes of their tent. Everything was contaminated by a greasy smoky smell. I wound a scarf over my nose, knelt by their ruined bodies, and turned over the awful rubble with a staff, looking for Rose. Lik lay, teeth fixed in the spear that killed him. There was no sign of Bar.
I turned them all over, identifying them by clothes, bangles, beads. Rose was not amongst that shambles. None of the younger women was there.
Some of the attackers had come from in front, as Karly Campy expected. What my father would have foreseen was that others had lowered ropes down the stone walls that closed the gully and swarmed, stampeding the animals through the tents, scattering fire and panic. Most people had been killed from behind. Karly Campy had set a mortal snare for the Travellers.
Tracks showed the attackers had rounded up the donkeys, loaded them with spoils, and driven the sheep and
goats up the slant of another gully into the western hills.
My back shivered cold at a quavering cry. Old Hagar rocked over her cruel son’s body and wailed a nerve-jangling lament. He had left her behind, yet she chanted prayers for his death. Between us were tumbled two babies and Jonny’s mother whom my father rescued in the Narrower Ford. In the fouled, airless gully I hunched, jerking vomit.
“We must go!” I gasped at the acrid taste of bile.
The cadence of Hagar’s mourning continued as I filled a couple of baskets. The lighter one I dragged to her. “Quick! They’ll be back for their arrows and all the other stuff.” I put a staff into Hagar’s hand, got the basket on her back. As we closed the bend of the gully, as the stench receded, I coughed and spat.
“Rose will be alive,” Hagar said, “she and the other young women.” She cawed a sort of laugh, looked back to where her son lay, and we passed out of sight.
There was a clatter of hoofs. Even if we dropped the baskets neither of us could run. I thrust my spear in front as out of a hidden gully trotted Jokey and half a dozen goats, bleating at being found. Some sheep followed. Down the slope more sheep and five donkeys came to my whistle.
Thirsty, hungry, they had been unable to take themselves further off. Perhaps they could not survive without people. I rode one donkey and led the strongest three back to that hideous gully where I had seen some abandoned pack-saddles. I hung woven panniers each side, loaded them with a tent, clothes, blankets, cooking pots, bowls, an axe, bags of meal, ropes, a couple of bows, spare strings, and all the arrows I dared collect. I ran, throwing things into the panniers, looking up, expecting to see myself surrounded by monsters.
Behind my donkey I dragged a heavy rug, roiling the dust, obscuring our tracks. We returned to Hagar, re-packed
and balanced the panniers, and lashed the rolled tent and blankets across to steady the loads. Hagar and I rode the two spare donkeys. The goats and sheep trotted. I dragged the rug again. Even so, any reader of tracks could see we had passed that way.
We continued into the morning much longer than usual. The sun here did not have its northern rage. In the evening we rode on. Late that night the animals drank gratefully at a runnel and bedded down around us. I slept exhausted despite my fears.
Next morning Hagar cackled as she crouched like a large, black bird examining what I had flung into the panniers. South the sky was clouded. One of the first rains of summer was rolling out of the hills.
“Fool of a boy, why didn’t you bring a loom? We have everything we need, everything but people!” She crowed and flapped her black sleeves. “You have lost your sister, and I my son.” She bent, croaked, and struck the air with her sleeves like wings. At first I was angry, then I thought her mind had gone, but she laughed again.
“We are the Travellers, now, Ish. Just you and me.” She was grieving, not laughing. “Your monsters will come back,” Hagar said, “round up the rest of the animals, and take what they left behind. They will follow our tracks.”
We rode chewing stale bread. The panniers had tight-woven covers, and we both wore rain cloaks. The animals had eaten and drunk well. They packed close, and we made a good march in the cooler air. Late that night we climbed a series of linked valleys into a green basin. Hagar was very tired but helped put up the tent. That was when I heard the barking.
It must be the monsters. Or wild dogs following the smell of goats and sheep. I put a stone in a sling, heavy enough to break a dog’s skull, or a man’s. I waited, more stones at my feet, spear upright beside me. Hagar muttered something.
“They’re ours,” she said. Her old eyes were sometimes better than mine.
The first dog was black. It was Bar! The dog behind favoured its front left paw. It was Karly Campy’s Mak. They flung themselves on us, whining delight. Bar licked and danced around me before sniffing Hagar and checking the animals. Mak rolled on his back and waited resignedly. His paw was opened up deep between the pads. With the tip of my knife I worked out a fragment of metal, part of an arrow head, and he licked my hand.
“Good dogs! We needed you. Now we’re a proper little caravan.” They drank goats’ milk and lay chewing some crusts, grinning, spilling their long tongues, tails thumping whenever we looked or spoke.
Jokey lifted his head at my voice and called goodnight. I lay under one of the blankets and thought of Rose. A blanket-covered mound beside me, Hagar chanted a prayer for her cruel son. Although I tried to keep quiet, her mumbling stopped, her old arms went around me, and I cried aloud. I wept for my father, for Rose, for the soreness of all the nights and days since Karly Campy had driven me out of the Travellers, and Hagar held me and crooned as if I was a child instead of a man who had survived on his own.