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Authors: Jack Lasenby

Travellers #1 (7 page)

BOOK: Travellers #1
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“Wait till you see the Hawk Cliffs,” Hagar kept saying. “The air – it is sweet. And nimble.” She laughed. “That’s it, nimble! It’s a good place to stay, the Hawk Cliffs, while we weave enough for swapping with the Metal People. There’s caves, hot springs, grass.”

We were travelling up the eastern side of the lake, glimpsing the water through trees. I was getting better at working a spindle but couldn’t match Hagar. Besides, I had to be ready to use my sling or bow.

One night we camped late after travelling in moonlight. Below us next morning the huge spread of Lake Top lay unmoving, frightening. The animals were reluctant to move. We put up our tent and waited for evening. All day I felt drawn towards the lake, its wide unwinking eye.

“It’s just water,” said Hagar.

“Why is it so big?”

“It’s just a hole in the ground.”

“Does it ever dry out?”

“If it did there would be no Whykatto River. Don’t you remember it?”

“Not so big.”

Hagar nodded. “The last few Journeys there were more animals to feed, and your father led us further east. But there’s more than enough grass for our little flock. At the Hawk Cliffs you can swim in the lake.”

“Swim?”

“You like swimming.”

“In there?”

“It’s just water. Help me with this.”

Swim in the lake’s great stare? Like some vast animal it crouched beneath a low sky. We moved on, but I didn’t like turning my back. If I looked over my shoulder would the water have crept closer? A bird drew a line down the sky.

“You might train a hawk of your own.”

“A hawk!”

“That’s what I said.” Hagar lowered her spindle. “If you find one young enough.”

A sky-striding hawk! I whistled Nip, strode out in front of the donkeys. I watched the spinning cross-sticks, but saw a hawk sustained on air. What if flying felt like swimming? The lake didn’t seem nearly as dangerous now.

One damp evening, we straggled like insects across a wide upland of grass. It seemed to go on forever. I was looking for somewhere to camp before it began to rain.

“Keep going!” Hagar called.

Keep going? Where? “It’s all right for her,” I grumbled at Bar. We were in for a miserable night. And without warning, the ground fell away at my feet.

I stood on the knuckles of an appalling cliff. Down and down I looked, dizzily, and saw a miniature landscape in dim light. Steam clouded a chain of pools beside a creek. Beyond, more grass spread. And there were trees, more trees than I had ever seen, even on the mountains. Bar’s tail revolved as he led the animals down the zig-zag of a green-carpeted gully between grey bluffs.

It was raining softly by the time we reached the bottom. Mak and Bar trotted sniffing through some caves, making sure everything was safe. Nip helped me herd the animals beneath the leaning cliff.

It was a comfortable arrival. The air was sweet, nimble, just as Hagar had said. It was beautiful, even in the rain. Grass and clumps of trees lined the shallow valley of our stream. West was a bay where waves tossed foam before the wind. The lake’s ominous stillness had gone. I had been
imagining things.

Close-pressed by the pack-saddles, the donkeys’ coats stood up thick after a brisk rub. Sweet smoke kept low and mingled with the animals’ sharp odours. The dogs gulped dried meat, and I gave them a bone each. Bar and Mak lay and held them between their front paws, keeping an eye on the animals still. They watched Nip carrying hers at my heels.

Hagar had lit the fire under the cliff where the creek ran close. She bent over a couple of pots held in a surround of rocks. Flames striped trunks, stippled the gloom of a cave behind.

“When I was your age we always stopped here. The animals grazed while we wove blankets. It’s not far to the Swapping Ground.”

“It’s a marvellous place! Did you ever see the Metal People?”

“They don’t want to be seen. Your father made us respect that. ‘We get what we want; they get what they want,’ he said. ‘Why upset things?” Hagar’s eyes glinted. “I wanted to see what they looked like.” She shook her head. “Your father always made us leave the Swapping Ground so the Metal People could come and go in secret.”

“Somebody must have seen and talked to them the first time?”

“Swapping goes back nobody knows how long. Perhaps to the time of the People of the Walls.”

“How long ago is that?”

“Before my mother’s mother’s mother’s time. Long before that.”

I seemed to be looking down into some obscuring depth.

“Ish, come back!” Hagar put a bowl of hot broth into my hands. “Eat and sleep.”

Hail swept over the Hawk Cliffs, rattled in the trees across the creek. The animals lay in shelter. Bar and Mak thumped their tails to let me know they were on watch, and the goats maaed their goodnights as I called their names. Nip trotted
after, learning not to tap my heel with her nose.

We lay on bags of wool and goats’ hair in the smallest cave. “Tomorrow, we’ll make a better bed,” Hagar said. I wriggled against her back. My leg was glad to rest. Curled on my other side, Nip licked her coat clean. There was the stream’s rush, the wind’s whine over the cliff, the rustle of rain. And somewhere the voice of the lake.

Next morning its water, sprightly blue and white, was framed like a charm in the cave mouth. Hagar said she was going to collect some stuff we needed for dyeing the wool while I grazed the animals.

“Plan how you’re going to make the most of the grass. Save the handy stuff. And keep an eye out for hawks; see if you can spot any nesting. It’s late, but you never know.”

That night Hagar showed me clays, crystals, and fine soils she had collected from the hot springs and along the cliffs. We ground them to powder in rock basins. When I asked who hollowed them out, Hagar said, “The Travellers have been coming here many years, Ish.”

Next day we scrubbed out the biggest basin. Its smooth sides were a dark red, something in the stone itself. We filled it with hot water and carried heated rocks between two forked branches, lowering them so the water seethed. Hagar stirred in measured quantities of various powders, lichens, and barks, and we put in the skeins of yarn.

Hagar was particular how long they stayed in. Soon there were great festoons of yarn hanging to dry: greens, reds, and yellows, as well as those left their natural colours. Reds and shades between purple and black Hagar made by mixing several powders with a dark and mealy soil from the swamps.

“The yellows will fade, but the others will last,” she said.

“How do you remember to make them all?”

“You’ve just helped me do it. Tomorrow you can dye some yarn green. You saw which lichens and powder we used.
You’ll remember, when you have to do it yourself.” She nodded towards several skeins of undyed wool.

Next morning she led the animals out. I mixed the powder, the dried barks, leaves, lichens, and clays. I filled the basin, boiled the water, stirred in the mixture, and dyed the skeins. That night I showed Hagar bright green wool.

“That’s a good green. It will mellow a little, but it’s fast. Now you will always be able to make these colours. You can experiment and make others, too. When I was a girl an old woman dyed wool as blue as your eyes, Ish, but she was left behind. Perhaps you will invent blue again.”

Where a steam vent gushed we gathered a yellow powder Hagar called sulphur. It was good for putting on sores and cuts. “It works inside as well as on your skin.”

“What do you mean?”

“It purifies your blood. That’s what Tahu used to say.”

Near the sulphur deposits we gathered a whitish powder, mixed it with oil to a dirty-looking paste, and spread it on the deer skins. Each night we worked them between our hands, daubing on fresh paste. With lumps of pumice we rubbed the skins, breaking the fibres. Finally we pulled them backwards and forwards over low branches till they crumpled, soft and pliable. Hagar then soaked them several days in a mixture I made from the bark we collected where I shot my first deer. When we took out the skins and worked them over the branches again, the leather dried light-brown.

All this time the animals had to be grazed. Fortunately grass spread in every direction from the Hawk Cliffs. As we worked, one evening, Hagar talked about Orklun, the silent city in the north.

“When I was a girl, an old man told us that was where the Travellers came from, beside the great river.”

“Is the river bigger than the lake?”

“Many times. Each day it turned and ran the other way, emptying and filling, emptying and filling. There were too
many people in Orklun. They covered the soil with walls, poisoned the air and the great river. They were so greedy they forgot how to be Gardeners, how to be Farmers. They cut down all the trees.

“They fought each other cruelly. They worshipped power and forgot the gods. The sun was angry. It sent terrible sky-winged lizards that knocked over their walls and burned the air with their fiery breath until the ground baked hard. And the poisoned water of the great river ran backwards and forwards, emptying and filling.

“A few people escaped to the Whykatto. They prayed to the Gods in the Cave, and the sun let them make the Journey south to the mountains with sheep and goats. When winter brought rains to the Whykatto they travelled north. In spring they watched the Animals’ Dance and set out on the Journey again. They were the first Travellers. So long as we make the Journey, the sun is satisfied.”

“Will we ever go back to Orklun?”

She shook her head.

“I just wondered what it would be like.”

“Broken walls,” said Hagar, “burnt ground, and the poisoned river running this way and that, emptying and filling. In Orklun the sun is still angry. That is why we make the Journey. We follow the rain.”

I knew not to say any more.

“The Metal People make their own leather,” said Hagar. “What they haven’t got is wool. For our weaving they will swap anything metal. Arrowheads.”

“Arrowheads! And a new knife?”

“Your father used to do the swapping, but I know what we can get for our weaving.”

“Where did the Metal People come from, Hagar?”

“They have always lived near the Swapping Ground. They make no Journey. Tomorrow,” she said, “we will set up the big looms.”

Next day Hagar sent me into one of the caves for some lengths of wood. Fallen rubble made it hard to get inside. The back of the huge cave disappeared in darkness.

Hagar dug leaves and dirt out of some holes in the ground while I dragged out the timbers. We wedged the long pieces upright, lashed others across. It made a loom Hagar would have to stand to work at.

“I’ll help you set it up,” I said.

“It’s just the same as the small looms.”

“I want a go on the big one.”

“You can, some other time. Now you must take the animals out.”

“I’ll leave Mak with you,” I said. Hagar had heard wild dogs during the night.

Hagar knew I wanted to watch. The wrinkles deepened about her eyes, and she stared at me until I grinned and looked away.

“You’ve still got to catch a hawk,” she said.

Bar led the animals up the creek, and we climbed to the top of the cliffs. Grass stretched everywhere about us. Bar and Mak investigated a patch of scrub, and Nip followed, copying them. She would often look at what I was doing, to find out what it was I wanted, and then join in.

“You’re like me trying to learn from Hagar,” I told her.

The lake was dark-blue today, dashed silver where waves broke. The wind blew in our faces. I was leading, and Nip was scouting when I sent her ahead, rushing back when I whistled or lifted my hand. I had not seen a single hawk. We came through some scrub and there was a deer feeding head
down. I nocked an arrow. It rustled across the air. I heard it hit, saw the flights quiver. The deer bucked and galloped.

I patted Nip for standing. She wanted to chase, but Hagar had warned me, “You’ll never control her if she runs on deer.” I leashed and let her lead to where the deer collapsed.

Hagar had set up what looked the beginning of a large blanket. She had drawn a design in the dirt, what looked like dark triangles, probably brown, emerging from a lighter background of what must be natural wool. She saw me look and stood in front. All right, I thought to myself. Then I wouldn’t tell her I’d shot a deer.

When I returned with the carcass on a donkey I could tell she knew why I hadn’t told her. Well, I thought, I’m not going to let her make me lose my temper. She sniggered to herself and began making her usual stew.

After seeing to the animals I returned sniffing the smoke. There was abundance at the Hawk Cliffs: firewood, hot and cold water, rabbits, hares, deer. There were the cliffs, the grass, the trees.

“I’d like to stay here.”

“How would you feed the animals in winter? They would die. Then where would you get the wool to make clothes and blankets? How would you make a new tent? You’d have no milk, no cheese. Last night you wanted to have a look at Orklun. Tonight you want to stay here. Make up your mind, Ish.”

“The Metal People don’t travel.”

Hagar showed one of her snaggle teeth. “Did you see any hawks?”

I shook my head.

“I worked here all day,” she said, “but I saw hawks.”

“Where?”

“They were carrying in food, so they’ve got a young bird.” She pointed at the highest cliffs. “They kept disappearing up there.”

My leg was tired. The fire glowed off the cliffs. A trout splashed in the creek. “We’ll have to make a net,” said Hagar. “You’ll need a special needle, and you can plait some cord. Flax will do because we’ll only be here a while. Let’s eat.”

Mist rolled down the gullies on the lake’s far side. It was mysterious again, frightening. I followed Hagar, my leg dragging, not lifting its foot properly. If I couldn’t be a hawk, the next best thing would be to catch one and fly it. Hawks soared on the wind more easily than I floated on water. They skidded down the sky like shooting stars.

Next morning I was leaning on my stick watching Mak appear and disappear between grassy folds behind the cliff tops as he headed off Jokey and Whitey. Something dark flicked over his head. Mak stopped. It swooped over a crest, dived on him, and was gone. Mak fixed Jokey with his eye and turned him back. This time the flying object hurtled even lower from behind the cliff and brushed his ears. He leapt and his teeth clopped on empty air.

Mak ran to me. “Did you get a scare?” I asked him. Jealous, Nip pushed herself against me. “I can pat Mak,” I told her. “You weren’t chased by a hawk.”

Slowed by hobbles the donkeys grazed along behind. Wind scribbled lines on the lake. And a speck flung itself down the sky on a second speck, lofted, and rode the invisible bank of air off the cliffs. I yelled. A male hawk had just passed food to his mate. They were feeding a youngster somewhere among the stone faces.

I tried to keep my news a secret that night, but burst out with it. Hagar chuckled. “Now find the nest,” she said. “Mak and Bar will watch the animals. I can keep an eye on them.”

I wanted to ask how she could work the dogs from her loom under the cliff. She smiled. She always knew my thoughts. Putting her fingers to her mouth she whistled so loud it bounced off the cliff. Mak and Bar leapt, and Nip stared.

“When I was a girl I led my own flock. I had my own dog.”

“Why did you stop?”

“Babies to look after, wool to spin, rugs to weave, food to cook. I liked being a shepherd. Then, suddenly, I was a woman, and I wanted to be that, too.”

I thought of Rose leading her flock across the Narrower Ford. That was what happened to her, too; she became a woman. Not a day passed that I did not think of Rose. I had learned much from Hagar, but Rose was my sister. She made me.

“If you find a younker you’ll have to stay in camp more,” said Hagar. “That’s why I wanted you to explore the grass, find how far it goes. You won’t be able to spend much time with the animals, not once you’re training a hawk.

“You’ve got to make it rely on you yet be its wild self. You can break a hawk’s heart. It will live with you a while, but you’ll never tame it. They’re crazy, hawks.”

“What do you mean?”

“Wait till you see its mad eye. They’re killers. That’s what they know.”

Hagar was sorting skeins, matching colours, laying one against another. Her blanket showed the beginning of a huge diamond pattern. She saw me look.

“We’ll put up another big loom. You can start a blanket while the hawk’s getting used to you. But first you’ve got to find the nest.”

I looked up at the top of the cliffs. Across the lake the mountains shrugged black shoulders against the stars. They seemed far distant, our days in their high basins. I wondered what a hawk sees as it flies above them.

Next morning I climbed a series of grassy benches. Hagar stepped out and waved. I scrambled higher. Because I was pulling myself up with my hands as much as using my feet, I could climb as well as somebody with two good legs. It was
only on the flat my gammy leg was a nuisance.

I could have gone up the zig-zag between the bluffs but it was more fun climbing the narrow ledges of turf. Then came a face where the only way was a chimney in the rock. I put my back against one side, my feet against the other, shifted my shoulders, wriggled my behind, walked my feet up the wall opposite, and shifted my shoulders again. There was a long slant to a vertical bluff, then the grassy brow, the knuckled top of the cliff. Hagar could not see me now.

The sheep were feeding in a dark swale, one of those wet patches on the plain of grass below. The goats spread outside, and Bar and Mak lay outside them again, dots on the green. One of the dogs rose and turned back a goat that had gone too far. “Jokey, I bet.”

The lake was a blue sheet scored by white lines. The mountains lofted sharp on the bright air. There was the island and the bluffs the other side. I rolled back from the edge. Something about the lake scared me still, as if it was trying to drag me off, to fall and bounce and smack and tumble so somebody below might hear a shriek and see a boy falling out of the sky. I crawled back, not looking at the lake.

Into some scrub along from the bluff I worked. When it came it was as I had expected it, the buffet to the side of my head, the thump of air its wings shoved against me. It turned on an invisible hinge, dived again. I rolled under branches. Just as well I had not brought Nip in the front of my tunic. There were now two hawks jinking and screeching through the trees.

I stood holding a branch over my head, and they flung through, fluttering the leaves. Wing-tips and talons rattled. Eyes flashing they curveted, screamed. When I ran along an open stretch one bird broke off but the other followed. I crawled through a thick patch, and it lunged between branches. Fierce hawk!

Long after it abandoned me I returned, hunching to where I could see the male flying in and out, disappearing beneath a cornice. Once it carried something the size of a baby rabbit, perhaps a rat; another time a small bird.

Hagar kept working as I limped into camp. “Well?”

“I found the nest.”

“Good.”

“I saw the father carry in a young rabbit or a rat. They chased me, Hagar.”

“They could knock you off the cliff.”

“I stuck a branch above my head.”

“You’ll need a hat if you’re going to steal a chick.”

“They’re fierce.”

“Brave little hawks!” Hagar’s knuckly old fingers worked busily. The diamond pattern of her rug was echoed in shades from cream through yellow to a deep red.

I sighed. “I wish I could draw those colours.”

“You’d better make a perch. It’s going to be standing on it a long time, so make it a good one.”

At a little distance from our cave, under the overhang, there was a twin-trunked sapling. I trimmed it and lashed a straight stick across. It was high enough for a hawk to feel safe, close enough for me to reach. All I had to do was steal a chick. I stepped back, looking up at the airy summits, tripped, and fell backwards into the creek. Hagar had her back to me, but I heard her snigger.

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