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Authors: Jack Lasenby

Travellers #1 (6 page)

BOOK: Travellers #1
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East we lifted each day with the land, until the dark line of a gorge showed west and, directly ahead, a blue-shouldered mountain. A white band capped it, explicit against dark clouds.

“In winter snow covers everything.”

I looked at Hagar.

“It’s in the stories and the songs about the Journey, Ish. I’ve heard you sing them, about the summer camps, how in winter they’re covered in snow.”

I had never thought of what the words meant. My father had told me about snow, and I had tried to draw it. I must have seen it before but never really thought of what it must be like. Because of Hagar’s story about the cannibals and her remark about Farmers and Gardeners I began to wonder about living up here in winter.

We camped in a tree-lined basin I seemed to remember. During the midday heat I ducked myself numb under a waterfall while the sheep and goats lay in leafy shade, waiting to graze in the long evening light. The nights up high were cool.

On stones worn down by earlier Travellers we sharpened our knives, penned some sheep, and cut their wool. Hagar showed me how to sit them on their rumps so they didn’t kick. They ran and jumped, curiously small and naked.

“It changes their natures,” I said.

“You’re judging by appearance,” Hagar laughed.

“You’re always laughing at me,” I complained.

“No, I’m not.”

“You are so. It’s not fair!”

“Don’t be childish,” Hagar said sharply. “You have to be a man, now. Remember old Tahu, how people said he looked as silly as a sheep?”

I remembered. Some despised Tahu, but he knew more about nursing sick animals than anyone else.

“Tahu was gifted,” said Hagar, “yet the people who judged him by his appearance would have left him behind.”

“Did you see his body at Tayamoot?”

She shook her head. “Tahu was old. He’d have died easily. We must separate the fleece wool. The neck and belly stuff’s not as good for spinning, but it’s handy for stuffing saddle pads.” I copied her but it took me much longer to separate the fleece.

Hagar was always running her hands over the goats, plucking loose hair, and now we went over them again. They knew what we wanted of them. Goats are understanding creatures. I have always liked them for that.

We made simple looms of two lengths of timber, with two bars fitting into slots. Hagar strung hers with yarn twined on her spindle, and I copied her. All those days of walking and riding: teasing the wool from around her left arm, drawing it out between her fingers; twirling the spindle, always in the same direction; winding the yarn around its shaft as it grew; all that work had resulted in a basketful of balls of yarn. Now we had the new lot of wool and hair as well.

“We’ll use it all,” said Hagar.

The yarn we tied lengthwise she called the warp. She showed me how to pass the shuttle across with the horizontal thread, the weft. We lashed the looms one each side of a donkey when we moved. Under trees during the daytime heat we set them up again. “We can use all the cloth we can make,” Hagar said.

I learned the knots, separating the warps, raising and lowering them to get different patterns. Hagar showed me how to do finger weaving and the dark and light diamonds
of the Travellers’ blankets. I beat my rows together to make the cloth tight and even. I passed the shuttle back and forth. I did everything Hagar did, and my cloth grew slow and uneven. There were places I even missed the warp.

“It’s stupid!” I kicked the loom and stamped away with my sling.

“I’ve been weaving too long to remember learning,” Hagar said next time I tried, “but I still make mistakes. You’re picking it up quickly.” She was always encouraging. “That’s important because you’re going to have to make your own clothes and blankets, your own packs and bags, saddle-blankets, even your own tent.” Everything she knew Hagar taught me. Our hands and clothes were thick with the wool grease.

“The grease keeps you warm and dry,” Hagar said. “It sheds the rain and stops your cloak from leaking. It’s a good smell!”

“I haven’t done much.”

“Your fingers will get as fast as mine. I was taught to weave because I was a girl. You were brought up to lead the sheep and goats because you were a boy. I learned to lead the animals, too, but women passed on their secrets only to girls.” She cackled into the sky. “It’s power, to hide things from men!”

I didn’t understand but knew it was important to learn as much as possible.

“You must learn to weave, but you must keep exercising that leg of yours, too,” she said. “Go round the animals, speak to them, let the dogs know you are watching.” And I would follow the goats, bring them back down a spur, move the sheep in with the dogs. Nip helped, learning from Bar and Mak. When I jumped in a stream and felt my leg floating, I thought I could live happily in water. Each day was filled with new things.

We spun string out of a mixture of wool and hair, winding strands together from two balls, drawing it tight. Hagar
showed me how to make an angled hook from a scrub knot, hard as iron. I polished it to a point on a stone, set it with rabbit guts, and caught an eel. I speared trout. We ate the last of the venison chips, and Hagar showed me again how to braid cord for snares, how to twist a bowstring.

“When you can use a bow,” she said, “you won’t have to depend on snares alone.”

The metal arrows from Tayamoot were too precious. I shaved a shaft of straight-grained wood and fitted the strangers’ arrowhead. The other end I split and inserted the feathers, flights Hagar called them. They made the arrow fly true. As I coated the lashing with beeswax she said, “You make stone arrowheads like this.”

She held a rock the size of my fist and struck another, knocking off flakes which she cracked still smaller. “This grey stone chips better and holds a sharp edge. I don’t know any more about it.” She gave her dry laugh. “I was a girl; I learned a woman’s skills. You’ll learn by making your own arrowheads.”

I spent hours chipping flakes to neat heads, rubbed smooth and sharpened on gritty stone. My first arrows fell to bits in mid-air, curved away, did everything but fly straight. I cried with rage, but Hagar laughed. “To use a bow is a fine thing,” she said. “You can kill food and defend yourself – at a distance. A Traveller must be a hunter as well.”

Afraid of losing the stone tips, I practised with wooden-headed arrows that did not fly as far. At first I couldn’t pull back the string, but it was a knack that came. My arrows flew further and straighter.

One morning I crept close enough to a hare to see its mouth working. The bowstring twanged as it leapt. I ran back to camp, dragging the hare. I skinned it, gathered and added the herbs Hagar had shown me. As it stewed, I showed her again and again how it had leapt to meet my stone-tipped arrow.

After that I crawled along a stream after grey ducks, but a pair which Hagar called parries, one of them with a white head, circled above, calling noisily, warning every bird and beast. I lost my temper and shot at them. Although I searched the hillside, all I found were lizards flicking under rocks. It was a hard lesson.

“A good hunter learns to hide from the parries,” said Hagar. “You must control your temper.” I threw down my bow and ran away. It was bad enough losing a stone-headed arrow, one that had taken so long to make. I didn’t need her telling me what to do.

All that afternoon I hid, watching the camp. Nip was a dot, playing around Hagar. Bar and Mak circled the animals. I wanted them with me and wished I were down there but didn’t know how to go back. Towards evening I saw Hagar take down the tent, load the donkeys and move off. I ran then, and Nip came to meet me. Hagar didn’t notice. Later, as we followed the animals, she spoke.

“Some men boasted of shooting ducks on the wing. The only shots I saw them take was when the ducks were on the ground or water. They took care not to lose their arrows.” She was trying not to laugh. I did not say I had gone back and searched the bare hillside, that my arrow still hid itself there.

I stalked ducks, getting to know their habits, which way to crawl up on their pools, how to avoid the parries. When at last I shot one, I fell in the water and hopped back, holding it up with the arrow sticking out, shouting.

“Lucky it didn’t fly away with your arrow,” said Hagar.

“I’d have followed till it came down.”

“The arrow would probably have dropped out. Stone-heads do that. Metal-headed arrows, they stay in, but they’re cruel things. They cut into the muscles as a deer runs so it bleeds to death. They’ll kill a man the same way.”

On rocks I drew people with arrows cutting into them as
they ran. I drew ducks and deer and hares. I drew us cutting wool, plucking hair, spinning and weaving. Drawing seemed to fix in my mind all the things I was learning from Hagar. There was so much to remember, Bar and Mak had to bark for my attention.

I tried to draw Orklun, walls and a great river, but I could not draw its silence. It was like the time I tried to draw snow on the mountains.

We loaded up with the looms and two blankets Hagar had sewn into bags and filled with wool and goat hair. My bit of cloth sagged all down one side.

“You're learning,” Hagar said. “When we put up the looms again, you can begin on another.”

“It looks stupid.”

“I'll sew it into a pillow, and it will straighten out. It will always be your first piece of weaving. Did you never hit yourself when you started using a sling?”

“Yes.” The crow's feet crinkled at Hagar's eyes. “I hit my foot.”

“Your foot?”

“Several times.”

Hagar squawked. “Several times!”

“My foot. I hit it several times.”

“With the stone?” She screeched.

“And my head, too.”

“You hit your head?”

“I kept letting go too soon.” I was almost crying with laughter. Hagar rocked, my weaving in her hands. Her mouth was open. I could see her few blackened teeth.

“Oh!” She cackled and took a deep breath. “You mustn't mind me laughing.” She stared and cackled again.

“I don't mind.”

“It is funny, hitting yourself when you were aiming at something else.” She guffawed and wiped her eyes, and I had to wipe mine, too.

When we had quietened down, Hagar said, “Learning to weave, there's a lot you pick up without noticing. I can tell
you things I know, but there's others I've forgotten. That's why you've got to make mistakes, so you can learn.”

“I didn't beat it hard enough.”

“That's easily fixed next time. Have you thought if we were still with the Travellers you wouldn't have learned to weave?”

“I want to be good at it. Now!”

“It takes time, like learning to hunt.” Hagar passed a rope. I took it around the load on my side and passed it back. “Now you can hit a duck or a hare with an arrow, you can get your food that way.”

“It's better than a sling.”

“If you can hit something the size of a duck, you can easily hit a deer.” I stared at her.

We travelled across the mountains' tilt, through grassy basins separated by long tongues of trees. This far south the sun had lost its terrible power. The air was clear and sharp. I smelled the animals, the resinous leaves. Hagar said the Travellers usually crossed lower down.

“There are more deer up here,” she said, “and a tree with bark we use to tan the skins.”

High above a bird cried “Kek! Kek! Kek!” harsh and wild, then a running call, much faster, and “Kek! Kek! Kek!” again.

“How would you like your own hawk, Ish?”

“A hawk?”

“Why not? The men used to train them.”

“Yes, but…”

“Someone who has learned to put sheep and goats across the river, to shear and spin and weave, to find a pup and train it, to find herbs and use them, to make a bow and arrows, and to fire a sling without knocking himself out, that someone should be able to train a hawk.”

“Have I learned all that?”


I laughed and agreed I should be able to train a hawk.

We found rock shelters to camp under and didn't stop long enough to set up the looms. Hagar's bones ached. She wanted to reach some hot springs.

I stalked deer, but they smelled me and ran. I remembered my father talking to the young men about hunting. “Try to think like a deer,” he always said. “Often, while you're sneaking to where you saw them, they've wandered somewhere else. You'll learn when to follow and when to give up.

“Scent and sound give you away but, if they can't smell you and don't see you move, deer don't know whether you're a stump or a rock. Stand still each time they look; see how close you can get. And try riding up on your donkey. They're not as scared then.

“Never stare straight at anything wild. Look out of the corner of your eye. They'll sometimes think you're just walking past.”

I thought of my father's words and stalked deer, standing still every time they looked up. I looked out of the corner of my eye. Once I came on a stag among trees and was too slow, afraid of losing an arrow.

“Forget about losing it,” Hagar said when I told her. “The thing is to hit a deer. It will give you confidence.”

She was right. I hit a hind with a stone-headed arrow. It ran off, the arrow wagging out its side. There were a few drops of blood. I went back to her last tracks and cast out in bigger and bigger circles until I found them again. I found one leaf with blood on it, another, then nothing more. I crawled, felt for the imprint of tracks, turned over leaves. At last I gave up.

“Where did the arrow go in?” asked Hagar.

“In the belly.”

“It will run for hours. Without a dog you've little chance of finding it. Take Bar tomorrow.”

“We have to get on.”

“You hit a deer, Ish. Try Bar.”

Bar sniffed around, followed something, then became confused, probably by other deer. I gave up and climbed through scrub that only came to my knees, on up a tussock spur. From its top Bar and I looked up the mountain's sweep, up to the snow. Its white band was dotted with black rocks.

Some day I would come back and climb to feel and taste the snow, so I could draw its picture. As we descended we heard barking and hurried. Mak was a quiet dog. Nip yelped. This was noisy barking.

Half the pack had an old ewe on her knees. A couple of big yellow dogs circled Hagar, Mak, and Nip, looking to cut out another sheep. They darted, growling, threatening. There were several others, but the yellow pair were the leaders.

Bar roared and plunged down. The bunch around the old ewe ran, led by one of the yellow pair, and chased by Mak. I shouted and swung my gammy leg. The biggest yellow dog turned on Hagar. Nip yapped.

It tugged Hagar's long black dress. She staggered, fell. I screamed. Hackles rose along its neck, over the shoulders, and in a ridge down its back. It dropped Hagar's arm and cut across the slope towards me, snarling. I felt the hairs rise on my own neck.

Scrambling down, notching a metal-headed arrow, I pulled as I ran. The bow bent to its full power. I opened my fingers, heard the twang, felt the bow rebound. The arrow whipped the air. The flights tossed gay against the yellow coat. The dog screamed, spun, bit at its shoulder.

“Good shot!” Hagar cried, battering the crippled brute's skull. Nip worried at its throat.

I followed Bar and Mak but met them returning. Hagar knelt by the ewe. “Her meat will be too tough for us, but it'll feed the dogs.” Her voice trembled. “She was old, anyway.”

“Lucky they didn't get amongst the lambs.” I helped her up.

Two more were wounded, a lamb and a ewe. Their rips weren't bad. “We're lucky,” said Hagar. She could remember when wild dogs killed scores of sheep. “Even one of our own dogs that attacks a sheep must be killed at once. They never forget the taste, the excitement. They always kill again.” I remembered my father saying the same thing.

As I skinned the yellow dog, Hagar came over. “See that?” She pointed at a line around the neck. “It might have been made by a collar. Those strangers who killed the Travellers, they had dogs. Anyway, this brute won't bother our sheep again. Is the arrow all right?”

It had gone behind the bone of the shoulder, through the muscle and into the heart. I didn't remember aiming there, knew I had been lucky, but felt cheered.

“We'll have to guard the animals carefully,” Hagar said. “Nip's still too young to do much, but she was the first to bark.”

“Clever, Nip!”

For several days, I dropped back with Bar and ambushed the wild dogs as they hung upon our tracks. A stone from my sling crippled the other yellow brute. I finished him off and shot a smaller dog. Without a leader the pack broke up.

One evening Nip and I were setting rabbit snares. She stared at something and looked at me. I crept down. Two hinds trotted out and tugged at grass on a terrace below. They fed closer. There was enough light to aim down the slope into a shoulder.

I had to tell Hagar every step Nip and I had taken, even how I held my breath. I danced the way the hind flinched, ran, and fell, and my leg collapsed under me. Hagar clapped; Nip yapped; Mak and Bar thumped their tails.

Hagar caught the blood in a large cooking pot and simmered
the offal into a dark stew. The dogs slept full, Nip growling over a bone.

As we came down the mountain flanks I killed two more deer, one with a stone arrowhead. The donkeys carried several baskets of dried meat and four dried deer skins as well as the rabbit and hare skins. “We're safer now we have a hunter,” said Hagar, but I wondered if she was teasing me.

Across an open valley was another range of mountains, dark with trees. Leaden, threatening, Lake Top filled the land to the north. Hagar said I had never seen it before because we usually crossed lower. Through several days of rain I watched the lake sullen and huge as we dropped to the Tungaro River. Then we could not see it any longer for willows.

Hagar soaked in a hot pool above the river while the animals grazed. “The Tungaro changes year by year,” she said. “It is dangerous. At the other end of the lake it becomes the Whykatto.”

I took Nip hunting in the willow swamps. I could hear deer moving ahead. Nip listened and sniffed. While I watched, water trickled into fresh tracks, filled them level. These swamp deer were bigger, but they froze, and we sneaked right past them. I wondered why they didn't leave any scent for Nip then realised it only spread when they moved.

I shot a stag with heavy antlers, different to the mountain deer's. The dark skin was heavy. Hagar raised her hands and said it would make strong leather. “You did well!” she cried. “They are hard to hunt, the swamp deer.”

When she had enough of soaking in the hot water we led the animals to a ford I had crossed and recrossed for days, getting to know it. With the animals bunched on a shingle bed in mid-river, I drove them downstream, the current carrying them across to the bottom of another gravel bar. We led them to its top and, by several shallow channels,
to the far bank. Hagar said nothing, just riding her donkey through the shallows to the first shingle bar when I told her to, and leading the animals down the current to the second one. When we were all across she said I had judged it well.

“You will make a good leader,” she croaked. “A pity there's only two of us.”

It was then I realised this was the ford where her father had been left behind, beside the Tungaro River. Hagar knew what I was thinking. “Travellers don't look back,” she said.

BOOK: Travellers #1
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