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Excerpt for Bonesetter 3 -summer- by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



BONESETTER 3


summer—



By



Laurence Dahners



Copyright 2018

Laurence E Dahners

Smashwords Edition

Author’s Note


Though this book can “stand alone” it will be much easier to understand if read after the stories Bonesetter and Bonesetter 2. I’ve minimized the repetition of explanations that would be redundant to those books in order to provide a better reading experience for those who are reading the books in order.


This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.


Prologue


“Water! Water! The river’s coming in!” Those words, shrieked by Karteri, were Valri’s first hint of the disastrous flooding of Aganstribe’s cave.

For a moment Valri felt the typical confusion of being awakened in the middle of the night, but then terror washed it away. Reaching off the edge of her piled up bedding, she could feel an inch or two of water on the floor of the cave.

Before Valri’s mind had even begun gibbering questions about what to do, Agan called out, “Don’t panic. Those of you near the fire, grab some brands that’ll make good torches and lift them high enough they can’t get drowned by the water. We should have a few hundred heartbeats. Everyone else gather a few truly important items and start up the mountain to the little cave.”

Having a purpose helped calm Valri. One of the young boys picked up several pieces of wood from the fire and held them up, waving them to fuel their flames. Valri turned to her mother, “What should we take?!”

Valri thought her mother’s expression looked a little panicked, but it was hard to tell in the dim flickering light of the torches. Her mother said, “Grain. Grab the biggest basket of grain you can carry and start up the path!”

As Valri turned toward the big, deep, tightly-woven storage baskets the grain was kept in, she saw Manute loading Agan onto his back and yelling at the injured young Falin to come along with him. Valri tried lifting the biggest basket, but immediately realized she wouldn’t be able to carry it. As Valri picked up a substantially smaller one, Deltin and Panute grabbed the handles on either side of that biggest one Valri’d first tried. They headed out of the cave toward the path up the mountain, looking like the huge basket was a strain even for two.

They probably thought I was crazy trying to pick that one up at my age, Valri supposed, feeling a little bit embarrassed. She decided even the second one she tried to lift up was too much, so she grabbed the next smaller one yet. Grunting, she headed for the path out of the cave, wondering if they’d be teasing her tomorrow for thinking she could carry such an enormous basket.

A massive surge of water flooded around her, becoming thigh high almost instantaneously. Valri slipped and fell down, losing her grip on the grain basket. The water lifted her with a sudden heave. She felt like she must be high above the floor of the cave. I’ve lost the grain! she thought, then hoped no one had been lifted so high they hit their head on the roof of the cave. I hope Deltin and Panute didn’t lose that huge basket, winter’s going to be really hard if we lose all the food we’ve stored…

The water tumbled her over, spun her about, and Valri suddenly realized things could be much worse than just losing the grain. She was under water for several long moments. She fought to the surface. “Mother!” she shouted. She listened but heard nothing over the roaring water. She’ll never hear me over the noise… Valri thought, and even if she did, I’d never hear her reply.

The water sucked Valri under again. This time it seemed even longer before she broke the surface. She gasped in a breath, then something struck her in the side. At first, she thought she’d landed on the rocks at the side of the stream. But then, as she threw her arms out, hoping to crawl to safety, she realized—from the rough bark and the fact it was moving downstream with the water—that she’d been hit by the limb of a tree. A big tree, she thought, gauging its ponderous movements in the water. A small tree or branch would be bobbing and shaking me all about.

Though it was dark and she couldn’t see the trunk, the motions of the limb she clung to told her that the main body of the tree was to her right. She began pulling herself along the limb toward the trunk.

A few hundred heartbeats later, a wave in the water helped Valri heave herself up onto the limb where it joined the trunk of the massive tree. From there she pulled her body up onto the trunk, keeping her legs wrapped around the base of the limb so she wouldn’t lose her grip. From the shuddering she felt sometimes, she decided the tree must be scraping over the bottom occasionally. My legs could get crushed against the bottom, she thought. Reaching out, she felt some good, stout stubs of branches on the upper surface of the tree. With a lot of effort, she pulled herself up amongst them.

The tree shuddered to a stop suggesting the front end of it’d run aground. Valri heard screaming up ahead and wondered if someone up there could see her in the dark. Perhaps they wanted her to get off. She stood and groped her way forward but the tree groaned and she felt it swinging around in the current. By the feel of the rotation Valri thought she was near the pivot point at the front. Maybe I can jump off if I can make it the rest of the way to the end.

Before Valri reached the end, the tree heaved twice and broke free. She wondered whether she should jump off and try to swim the rest of the way to the shore, but worried she’d get lost in the dark, swimming the wrong direction. Or I could get hit by another tree. Suddenly the screaming from the shore filled her with foreboding. Maybe my tree hurt someone when it ran aground!

I hope this tree grounds itself soon. If it doesn’t, the walk back to the cave’s going to be really long!


When the dawn’s light arrived, Valri woke feeling exhausted. She’d slept a little bit on the log, wedged between some of the stumps of its upper branches. However, every few hundred heartbeats she’d wakened in terror. It wasn’t because the tree was constantly being thrashed by waves and rapids. It wasn’t. Sometimes it rode calmly through what seemed like placid water for substantial distances. However, even in those calm waters, little bumps and wiggles woke her. Her mind would toss her about, wondering whether anybody’d been hurt when the water came into Agan’s cave.

Wondering whether she could have done something more to help the others.

She started to worry that perhaps someone had been drowned.

Now she looked out over the morning’s sodden landscape, still wet from the previous day’s heavy rain. The river she rode was wider than she’d ever seen. She knew the water got broader the farther you went downstream, but this was much wider than she’d ever dreamed.

She noticed a row of bushes sticking up through the water some distance from the edge of the river. With dismay, she realized they were trees that only looked like bushes because their trunks were hidden beneath the surface. The trees actually delineated the normal banks of the waterway.

Of course, she had no idea how far downstream she was. She might have ridden this huge log farther than anyone she knew had ever traveled. Certainly, nothing looked familiar to Valri, but she hadn’t traveled extensively herself. She watched the bank for a while and decided it was going by at about the speed of a fast walk. If she’d been traveling at that speed for most of the night, it meant that it would take a full day’s walk to get home. More, since she’d be going uphill. And that assumed she turned up the correct tributary on her return, since she knew she had to be riding on the main river now, not the branch Agan’s tribe lived on.

Valri began to hear what sounded like rumbling thunder in the distance. However, she didn’t think it could be thunder because it was constant, not intermittent. Valri slowly realized the sound came from further down the river. At first, she thought that would be interesting because she’d pass close enough to it to see what was making the noise.

With a rising sense of horror, she began to wonder whether the sound could be coming from the river itself. Maybe it portends a new danger?

She began to see mist over the river ahead.

Valri briefly wondered whether she should jump from the tree and try to swim to one of the banks of the river, but the distance to the shore seemed impossible.

The water got rough. The thundering mist closed in.

The front of the tree dropped. The back part of the huge tree beneath Valri bucked up into the air, nearly tossing her off. As it lifted up, she wondered whether she should let herself be thrown free.

Worried that she might come back down and be impaled on the stubs of the mighty tree’s branches, instead she held on for dear life.

Valri had heard of a small waterfall the height of many men up in the mountains. This huge, waterfall turned out to be tremendously wide but only a little higher than a tall man. Nonetheless, the violence of the ride as Valri’s enormous log slammed over it shocked her. Despite holding on for dear life, there were moments she thought she’d be thrown free.

On the downriver side, she looked back at the falls. This must be where the Falls People live, she thought in a moment of lucidity that broke through the gasping relief that she’d survived.

Valri looked around, hoping she might see some of the people who lived at the falls out in the water. Maybe catching fish as they were reputed to do. Perhaps someone that might rescue her?

She didn’t see a soul.

They’d have to be crazy to be out in the water when the river’s flooding, she thought. Nonetheless, she watched the banks until the afternoon. By that point, she judged she’d floated far enough down the river that she had to be beyond where the Falls People lived or even where they might hunt.

She wished she had her pouch. If she’d snatched it up when she left the cave, she could have used her little hand axe to cut a small branch from the tree. Then some cord from the pouch could have wrapped her knife to the branch, and she could have tried to spear a fish.

Though she didn’t see any fish in the roiling water.


Another night passed, this time with Valri’s stomach gnawing with hunger. The river provided plenty to drink. She drank to fill her stomach, not just slake her thirst, even though the water tasted muddy.

The massive tree rode more and more calmly as the night passed, so this time Valri got a good bit of sleep. Awake at one point, she thought, In the morning I’ll swim for the shore. The dangers of whatever’s in the water have to be less than waiting. What if the river comes to an even higher waterfall?

One I can’t survive.


As morning light crept over the hills behind her, Valri found her tree floating in the middle of a broad, placid river. The surrounding land was gently undulating.

The shores were improbably far away.

Valri contemplated the long swim to shore with great dread. She’d learned to swim in the pools of the large stream Aganstribe lived on. She thought of herself as a good swimmer, but she’d never swum even a tenth of the distance to the closest shore.

But, if I wait, the river’s just going to get wider!

She looked downriver, worrying that waiting might bring her closer to some possible disaster like the waterfall. The river bent around a corner to the left so she couldn’t see what lay beyond. Wait, the water will swing to the outside of the turn, won’t it?

Valri tried to remember riding rafts down Aganstribe’s stream. Considered foolishness by their elders, it was a common sport for the younger members of the tribe. They’d tie several small logs together and ride down past the cave in the summers. Valri had only done it a few times, but she remembered that the rafts often grounded on the shore during turns—she thought they went aground to the outside of the curve. I’ll wait at least until that turn ahead, she thought. The log should get a little closer to the shore, even if it doesn’t run aground.


Valri’s hope stirred. The log started to swing toward the right bank as the river turned left; it was as if the log was continuing straight, not having noticed the curve in the river. She stood and moved to the base of a large limb that went off to the right of the trunk. If she timed it right, she hoped she could run down the limb and leap off into the water a little bit closer to shore.

Her eyes searched the shore downriver for a good place to climb out. The tree surged and she nearly lost her perch. Looking ahead, she saw the water speeding up and getting rougher as it turned to the left. The river began to cut through steep bluffs on either side. As the river straightened again, she saw even steeper rapids rushing down a fairly straight chute between cliffs that went up to the higher bluffs on either side. Further ahead the river appeared to slow and get… unbelievably wide. And blue instead of the muddy brown of the river. Valri’s eyes widened, It’s the sea!

I rode this tree all the way to the sea!

She looked again at the rough water ahead, realizing that if she jumped off now, she’d be trying to swim in the fast water as it crested over boulders. And, if she paused, clinging to one of the boulders, logs or other flotsam in the river might crush her from behind.

Should I jump? she wondered, looking again at the shore, frustrated to be so indecisive at such a critical moment. The log made her decision for her as it began thumping and thrashing in the rapids. Getting off suddenly seemed far too dangerous.

Valri clung to the broken branches on the log and weathered the rapids, though there were times she thought she couldn’t possibly make it. After what seemed like forever, the log bumped heavily a couple of times then settled into smoother slower water at the end of the descent. Lower now, she could no longer see the blue water, but knew it couldn’t be too much further.

Exhausted and trembling from the ride down the rapids, Valri clung to the log. Once she’d gotten control of herself, she straightened up and once again tried to think what to do. With dismay she remembered hearing that monsters lived in the sea. She told herself she had to get out of the river before it reached the sea. As she moved to leap from the log and swim for the shore—no matter the distance—Valri lifted her eyes to check the river’s banks. People! She saw people beyond the water’s edge.

Valri screamed, shouting “Help!” and waving her arms. She doubted they could hear her but after a moment a couple of people waved back at her.

They see me! Will they realize I don’t know what to do? Would they try to rescue me? Are they even capable of coming after me? Will they come for me even after I float out to sea? Maybe they’re trying to tell me to get off before it goes that far?!

Valri steeled herself to jump, then the tree shivered as it hit a boulder. The heavy vibration ran the length of her log and nearly threw her off.

Once again, she found herself clinging to the massive log as it bumped and jolted through a couple of additional patches of rough water. The last one felt like it sent the log skidding out the river’s estuary into the sea.

In a brief calm moment Valri looked back to see whether the people she’d seen on shore might be coming after her. They probably have their own problems from the flood, she thought.

She couldn’t see anyone.

She couldn’t see monsters in the water either but wondered whether, nonetheless, they were there, just waiting for her to try to swim to shore.

Eventually the tree began to surge up and down under the influence of the waves coming in off the sea.


The sun had risen another fist into the sky. Valri had spent the time hoping in turns for a rescue party from the people she’d seen; or for the waves to push her tree back to shore. Neither seemed to be happening and, worse, Valri had discovered the seawater tasted salty. She’d tried drinking some anyway, but it didn’t slake her thirst. It uneasily filled her stomach, but she thought she might throw it up.

I have to try to swim to shore, she thought, trying to judge which shore of the estuary looked most promising. She turned to scan the sea for the beasts she’d heard swam in the sea.

She’d been told they ate unwary swimmers, though those might just have been tales told to frighten children.

Valri eyed a smaller log, wondering if she could lie on it, paddling with her hands like the kids occasionally propelled little rafts in the creek’s pools back home. Then if a sea monster came, perhaps she could pull herself completely up on the log for safety? Though, in her mind, the sea monsters resembled the big cats that roamed the nights. She couldn’t imagine a huge swimming cat that would have trouble pulling her off her log.

Valri dithered a bit longer, then, thinking that a splash might call a sea monster to her, she slowly lowered herself into the water and gently dog paddled to the log she’d been eyeing.

Pulling herself up onto it pushed the log lower in the water, but she found she could get her entire body out of the water on top if it if she was careful. If the sea monsters can’t leave the water, I could be safe up here. Then she thought of fish she’d seen jump out of the water to catch insects. Could “sea monsters” just be big fish? she wondered. Deciding it didn’t matter, she tried paddling toward the shore. Unfortunately, her log didn’t seem to move at all relative to the other trees.

A large wave lifted her, heaving her tree and all the others up and down. Wearily, she saw the problem. Its limbs were tangled with the branches of other trees beneath the water’s surface.

Valri looked toward the shore again. Her eyes focused on a log that looked as if it might be floating freely, though it was about 10 body lengths away. Best of all it didn’t look like it had branches to get tangled with others. Once again she slipped into the water and started paddling.

Reaching her new log, Valri discovered a new problem inherent to branchless logs. They rolled. It did have a surface that was normally up, and when Valri pulled herself on from the end instead of the side she managed to get onto that surface. Paddling with both hands simultaneously rather than alternating sides, she thought she was moving the log toward the shore. At least a little.

Valri carefully lifted herself to look toward shore, thinking she needed to choose the best direction to paddle. Her log started to roll and she quickly lowered herself. But, she’d seen people! Are they coming to help? she wondered, lifting just her head, not her body this time. She could intermittently see the upper bodies and heads of two people, depending on the waves. She lifted an arm and waved at them.

One of them waved a piece of wood at her in return.

For a while the two men seemed to be getting closer, then Valri realized they were angling off to one side. Worried that they’d lost sight of her, she called out and waved again.

One of the men waved again and called back to her, “We see you. Wait your turn.” To Valri’s dismay, he sounded angry.

Looking in the direction they appeared to be going, Valri suddenly realized a woman was draped amongst the limbs of one of the other trees. She looked unconscious!

Or, perhaps, dead.

Anxiously, Valri waited as the two men approached the tree. When they got close enough, Valri could see they were on some kind of long narrow raft. It looked like four or five long timbers lashed together. The man in front was on his knees while the man behind sat cross legged. They were propelling their raft with the pieces of wood they’d waved at Valri before—long shafts with flat areas at the ends. They stroked them through the water, the action seeming to propel their raft.

Arriving at the tree, the two men examined the woman there, then pulled her loose from the limbs of the tree and flaccidly draped her onto their raft. After what looked like some debate, they began paddling the raft toward Valri.

As they got closer, Valri said, “Thank you for coming to get me! I was getting ready to try to swim for the shore, but I was afraid the sea monsters might get me. Is that girl okay do you think?”

They didn’t say anything, just continued to paddle even closer. Desperate to make a connection, Valri said, “Do you live at the mouth of the river? Are you the people who trade salt up the river?”

They still didn’t speak. Have I floated so far that people speak a different tongue? she wondered. Each tribe spoke a little differently. She’d heard that if you went far enough, people spoke so peculiarly they couldn’t be understood. Valri’d never encountered anyone like that, but she could believe it. Then she remembered that one of the men had spoken to her already. She opened her mouth to try saying something else but the man in front reached out and painfully smacked her bottom with the flat of his paddle. “Shut up!”

The words were shouted and spoken a little oddly, but Valri certainly understood them.

Her insides congealed as she cowered away. She took in the way his eyes lingered on her body. She’d heard something about the people who lived at the coast…? Something, not good?

In an ugly tone, the man said, “You will do exactly as we tell you, or we’ll just leave you out here for the sea monsters, understand?”

Valri nodded timidly, though she wasn’t sure this man might not be worse than the monsters. Slaves… she thought. That’s what I heard. The sea people keep slaves!

With even greater horror she realized the girl lying unconscious on the raft was Karteri.


Chapter One


As Tando and Pell walked the trail behind Gontra, Pell thought about how much he missed having Ginja with them. The wolf had disappeared a hand of days ago.

At first he hadn’t been worried; after all, Ginja’d disappeared for days at a time on many occasions in the past. She usually disappeared for a while when new humans showed up and started spending time around the cave. She’d returned when the humans left, or when they’d been around long enough that she evidently decided she was going to have to put up with them.

However, it was late winter and no new people had shown up recently. Pell had just woken up one morning to find his friend the wolf wasn’t sleeping against his legs like she normally did. The wolf hadn’t been back since, and he’d been worrying more and more about her. Pell surveyed the landscape, wondering if he might see her in the distance. Perhaps she’d be hidden in the trees like she had been other times. After all, Gontra was with them now, and he didn’t normally live with the Cold Springs tribe. He’d arrived at Cold Springs few days ago at the end of a warm spell. Gontra’d come to ask whether the people at Cold Springs might have enough smoked meat that they could share some with Pell’s old tribe at the Aldans’ cave.

Despite a careful sweep of their surroundings, Pell didn’t see Ginja anywhere. It did seem unlikely that he’d happen to find her out in this particular direction. At present, he, Tando, and Gontra were toiling up a hill on the path that’d eventually take them to the Aldans’ cave. He resolved to look for Ginja again when they reached the top of the hill and he could see farther.


Their packs, laden with the smoked meat jerky they called “spirit meat” made climbing up over the ridge more difficult. The meat would come as a much appreciated supplement to the Aldans’ sparse late winter diet. They’d run out of meat a hand of days ago. They still had some grains and roots to eat because the Aldans’ women had been assiduous about gathering before winter. Especially so, once the men had started failing in hunt after hunt. Also, some of Pell’s ideas about how to keep their stores dry and free of vermin had helped them keep the products of their harvest from going to ruin like they often had in the past.

Pell felt excited because he had some of Donte’s dried berries and apple slices hidden away in the bottom of his pack. When his mother’d first started drying fruit, they’d all been thrilled that it seemed to keep, but, of course, they didn’t know whether it would actually last all winter. Now, at the tail end of winter, they knew the dried fruit actually could last. They all loved getting a bit of tart sweetness with their meals. It wasn’t as good as the ripe fruit in autumn, but was so much better than no fruit at all. Pell wasn’t bringing much of the leathery dried fruit because of how much his own Cold Springs tribe loved it, but he thought the Aldans would appreciate even a little bit.

And, it’d forge their desire to dry some fruit themselves later in the summer.

They’d reached the top of the hill. Pell stopped to look around. His heart skipped a beat when he saw a pair of wolves in the distance. “Ginja!” he called out, hoping against hope that one of the pair might actually be his old friend. He lifted his far-seer and peered through it. Pell just had a moment to think that, even if it was Ginja, she was probably mated to the other wolf and no longer tied to him.

But then the head of the larger wolf jerked up and turned his way.

A moment later Ginja started trotting his direction.

The other wolf bounded forward a few steps. Once he was in front of her, the male wolf tried to shunt her aside. They are mated! Pell thought with chagrin, assuming Ginja would never return to Pell against the will of her new mate. However, Ginja turned and appeared to be nipping at the other wolf. It backed off unhappily.

Pell lifted his far-seer to his eye again. Ginja’s mate approached her one more time and this time Pell could see Ginja’s bared teeth as she nipped the other wolf.

Ginja loped up to Pell, bumped him hard, then stood on her hind legs to put her big paws on his chest. Her tongue lolled out to give him a joyful lick. Pell threw his arms around his old friend and scrubbed his fingers through her pelt. A glance showed Tando grinning while Gontra looked on apprehensively.

Ginja dropped to all fours. Pell scratched behind her ears as he looked out at the other wolf. The male wolf had stopped uncertainly, about thirty paces away. It yipped but didn’t attempt to come any closer.

Gontra said, “Can we keep walking? I don’t want to get caught out on the trail at night.”

Pell started walking the trail again and Tando followed suit. To Pell’s relief, Ginja trotted along beside him like she had much of the past year. For a moment Pell wondered whether he should be trying to come between Ginja and her mate. Then, deciding he loved her more than any other wolf could, he took a couple of quick steps to catch up to Tando. He reached into Tando’s pack and pulled out a couple of strips of smoked meat. When he held them out to Ginja the big wolf bolted them down happily, then looked expectantly at Pell. With a laugh, he said, “One more, that’s it!” He pulled out another strip and held it out to her.

Tando grumped, “Are you feeding that damned wolf again?!”

“Of course,” Pell said mock disdainfully. “She’s saved my life a bunch of times. What’ve you and Gontra done?”

As they walked on, Pell worried Ginja’d leave him for the male wolf anyway, but it didn’t happen. When the sun had crossed another fist of the sky, Ginja was still there, but Pell could no longer see the male wolf.

He wondered if he should feel guilty.


***


When Pell, Gontra, and Tando arrived at the Aldans’ cave, Pell was surprised to see that most of the Aldans weren’t there. Lessa was tending the fire and watching over a couple of babies.

“Hi Lessa, where is everyone?” Pell asked.

She grinned at him. “Someone told us that if we didn’t want to be hungry, we should constantly work to find food.” She shrugged, “Belk and Exen are out hunting…” she stopped, apparently seeing the questioning look on Pell’s face. She corrected what she’d said, “Well, mostly setting snares.” She glanced at the babies, then turned back to Pell, “The women are out looking for root vegetables.”

Pell frowned, “Didn’t they dig up all the root vegetables back in the fall?”

“They’re looking in places they didn’t look last fall. Making longer trips and looking in areas where there aren’t good trails.”

“And they’re finding some?”

Lessa nodded, “It’s harder because the plants are harder to recognize now that their leaves are dried up. But, the root vegetables are still good! In fact,” she lowered her voice, “I think some of them taste better than they do when we dig them up in the fall.” She turned her eyes to Pell’s, “Do you think that’s just because we’re hungrier?”

Surprised she’d ask him since he was a man, Pell nonetheless considered the question. “I don’t know. Do you still have some of the roots from the fall you can compare them to?”

Lessa’s eyes widened a little. She turned to glance in the direction of their stores. “I think so. Do you think next fall we should leave some of them in the ground to dig up later?”

Pell didn’t answer because he’d suddenly started worrying about a completely new problem. When they set snares, they couldn’t catch unlimited numbers of animals on the same trail. He’d decided long ago that once you caught the animals that lived on a particular trail, you needed to set your snares somewhere else. Eventually, you could go back to that same trail and catch animals again. Pell thought that was because animals from elsewhere moved into that now empty area.

But what about plants? If you ate all the plants in a particular area… Plants didn’t travel! At least Pell didn’t think they did, since they didn’t have any legs to move themselves with. He’d never seen a plant going anywhere either. He eyed Lessa, “When the women gather all the food in a particular area, does more grow in that spot the next year?”

Lessa frowned at him, “Wait a minute. You didn’t answer my question about whether we should leave some in the ground for later in the winter.”

Frustrated, Pell shook his head as if he was trying to get rid of a bothersome fly. “I don’t know. I guess if you think they taste better when you leave them in the ground it seems like a good idea to leave them there. But what about my question? If you harvest all the grain or root vegetables or berries from an area one year, do more of those same things grow in that spot the next year?”

Lessa shrugged, “You don’t know the answer to my question, and I don’t know the answer to your question. I’ve never worried about whether there are more or less plants in a location than there were the year before. We just go out and gather them. Some years there’s more, some years there’s less…”

Pell found this unsatisfying but couldn’t pursue his questions further because just then the rest of the Aldans returned to the cave. Exen excitedly showed Pell a snow hare they’d found on their trap line. The women had found a few edible roots and listened with great interest to Lessa’s description of Pell’s recommendation they not dig the root vegetables up until they needed them in the winter—which wasn’t at all what he thought he’d said.

Gontra announced that the tribe at Cold Springs had given the Aldans some spirit meat. When he told them that they’d brought three large backpacks full of meat, the awe and gratitude in the cave was palpable. Gratitude for the food and astonished awe that the small neighboring tribe had so much to spare this late in the winter season. Many of Pell’s former tribe gathered about him to touch and hug him. At first Pell felt embarrassed and tried to shrug it off. He repeatedly pointed out that Tando had contributed as much to the food they’d brought as he had and they did thank Tando, but still focused most of their attention on Pell.

The women of the Aldans began working on a small celebration feast. As it was being cooked, Pell asked several of the women his same question about whether a particular type of edible plant grew in the same place every year. Several of the women said that the plants did seem to be in the same location each year, but no one ventured an opinion on Pell’s theory that, perhaps, if they harvested too many plants—or perhaps every plant—from an area whether the plants might not come back there the next year. One of them even shrugged and said, “If you say so…” apparently unable to accept that he didn’t know.

Boro’s mother Teda was of the opinion that you could harvest too many plants from an area and cause problems with the next year’s harvest. She claimed not only to have seen it happen, but to have had it passed down to her as a bit of wisdom from one of the older women in the tribe she’d come from when she’d joined Bonat in the Aldans. While Pell was over asking her more about this, she put her hand on his arm and quietly interrupted, “Can I come join you and Boro at Cold Springs?”

“It’d be okay with me, but I’d have to ask Agan.”

Teda drew back, giving Pell a reproachful look. “You’re their leader, why do you have to ask? Just tell.”

Once again, Pell found himself explaining that Agan was their leader, and how that was because of her years and her wisdom. He’d even begun to explain the system of pebbles they used to vote on who would be the leader when Teda interrupted him again, “Okay, okay. But I know they’ll take me if you ask them. Will you?”

Pell nodded, thinking that this was one more reason he didn’t want to be a tribe’s leader. Making decisions like this had to be horrible at times. And a decision like this one would be as nothing compared to the horror of having to cast out the elderly or infirm if the tribe didn’t have enough to feed its members through a winter. Right now the Cold Springs tribe had plenty, but that might not always be the case. Just the thought gnawed at his stomach. What if we harvested so many of the plants in our region that they don’t grow back next year? What if the very way we gathered all that food to get us so easily through this winter dooms us for the next one?

Pell stayed deep in thought as they ate, barely even answering questions they posed him. Everyone had almost finished eating when he suddenly realized that he hadn’t gotten out the dried fruit! He went to the backpack he’d been carrying and dug through it for the skin he’d wrapped the fruit in. Standing, he said, “I have a treat!” At this announcement, everyone turned to stare at him with excitement. Anything out of the routine, especially something edible, was cause for enthusiasm at the end of a long hungry, boring, winter. He unwrapped the skin and went around the fire giving each person a slice of dried apple or pear and a dried currant, grape, or raspberry.

They all frowned at his offering initially, but a sniff, a lick and then a cautious nibble was all it took to turn their doubt into delight. “What is this stuff?!”

“Donte thought this up. It’s like spirit meat, but with fruit instead of meat.”

“Fruit?!”

Pell nodded, “During the autumn harvest we pick all the fruit we can get, instead of just what we need at the time…” Pell paused. His audience thought he was trying to draw out their anticipation, when actually he was once again wondering if having taken all the fruit might somehow have doomed them in the coming year. The bushes and the trees the fruit had grown on were still there of course, not dug up like root vegetables, so they should make fruit again next year, shouldn’t they?

Someone impatient with Pell’s long pause, said, “Then do you smoke it? It doesn’t taste smoky.”

“Um, no. We put it out to dry on the rocky cliffs above our cave. You can probably tell that we slice the apples and pears into thin pieces first so they’ll dry more easily. If you don’t, they still rot. We cut the grapes and remove the seeds. Then we put them out to dry underneath loosely woven baskets to keep the birds from eating them.”

The Aldans were ecstatic about the dried fruit, with many of the women asking for more details on how to dry their own next fall. Pell urged them to travel over to Cold Springs and ask Donte about it shortly before the fruit was ready to harvest. “She knows a lot more about it than I do.”

The next morning, Pell and Tando went out to set snares with Gontra, Belk, and Exen. Gontra asked them to, hoping Pell would make more suggestions about trap placement. He actually wanted better performance from their traps now, even though Pell and Tando told him their traps weren’t doing well in the cold moons either.

Pell asked the women if they’d take him out that afternoon, looking for root vegetables in wintertime. He wanted them to teach him how to recognize the dried up leaves, stems or vines of the plants that were hiding good roots beneath the surface. He didn’t really need to find any because the Cold Springs tribe had plenty of roots at present. But, if they should run out in the future—perhaps because they’d taken too many this past autumn—it might be important to know how to find them next winter.


The next day Pell and Tando started back for the Cold Springs cave. As they left Teda grabbed at Pell’s arm and pulled him down to whisper, “Don’t forget to ask if I can join your tribe with my son.”

Pell nodded, “I won’t.”

Tando was in a good mood as they walked. Pell assumed he wanted to get back to Ontru, like Pell wanted to see Gia. After they’d walked some distance, Tando turned to Pell and, with a tone of anticipation, said, “When we’re closer, let’s keep an eye out for something to hunt. It’d be great to arrive back at the cave with a deer or pig or something.”

Pell smiled and said, “Sure.” But, to himself he thought, I should start practicing throwing spears, not just rocks.


Pell and Tando arrived back at the cave without having seen any large animals they could hunt. However, they encountered Woday walking up the stream with some fish. He’d gone down to check some basket traps he’d put on the main river and they’d held several substantial ones.


***


As she carried the full water-skin back up to the camp, Valri reached down with one hand to rub at her empty stomach. As usual she felt surprised by how, despite her hunger, her stomach bulged. She’d been hungry every winter of her life, but never as hungry as she’d been this winter as the sea peoples’ slave. When she got sent to the river to get water, she always took a moment to fill her stomach, just to temporarily halt the constant gnawing. Unfortunately, the relief rarely seemed to last more than a few hundred heartbeats.

Her ribs stuck out much more than in other winters and the bones in her hands and forearms protruded. Yet her feet looked fat and her stomach bulged. Though she didn’t understand it, protein malnutrition let fluid leak out and swell the tissues in the abdomen and feet. When she poked her feet, it left a disgusting indentation in the swelling.

Valri always felt weak, and she’d started having trouble thinking.

Karteri’d recovered from whatever had left her stranded and unconscious in the branches of the tree during the flood. For a while she’d seemed healthy, but she’d been thin to begin with and the constant hunger had been even crueler to her than to Valri. It’d left Karteri listless and irritable. The flesh thinly covered the bones of her face. Though Valri couldn’t see her own face, she didn’t think it felt quite as skeletal as Karteri’s looked.

Valri and Karteri and the sea people’s other two slaves had been subsisting on root vegetables that a few of the kinder sea people shared with them. But they only got the roots that were going bad anyway.

The sea people didn’t eat many animals, either not knowing how to hunt or perhaps because there weren’t that many animals near the sea. Instead they mostly ate shellfish and turtle eggs they gleaned from the beach. They caught fish that they dragged out of the surf or the river with sharp pieces of bone they called “gorges.” The little bones were tied onto long cords and baited with offal the fish apparently snatched up as food. The bone caught in a fish’s throat, allowing the sea people to pull them out of the water. But, just like the animals near Agan’s cave, fish were harder to catch in winter. When they did catch a fish, the sea people made a soup or stew and shared it amongst themselves, not with their slaves. Even in warm weather the slaves seldom got to eat fish unless the catch had been exceptionally large. Valri and Karteri had tried sucking at the fish bones after they’d been thrown on the garbage dumps, but it seemed that—as opposed to the marrow of animal bones—the process of making soup left little nourishment on fish bones.

The sea men had used Valri and Karteri frequently for sexual gratification though less now that they were sick. Karteri wasn’t a virgin, she’d had a baby though it didn’t survive. However, she’d never been forced before and cried a lot at first.

Valri’s introduction to sex had been particularly brutal since she’d only bled for the first time four moons ago. Then Valri and Karteri’s moon-bleedings had stopped. Karteri had explained what that often meant and Valri’d despaired at the thought she’d be bringing the child of one of the sea men into the world. They’d both bled again when they’d gotten hungry in the early winter and Karteri thought perhaps they’d lost the babies. But then when their stomachs began to bulge they worried once again. Karteri said it didn’t feel like when she was pregnant, but Valri didn’t know whether Karteri could really tell. Valri felt far from normal, though she realized that might be due to starvation rather than pregnancy.

Valri rounded the corner of the thatched hut that belonged to the chief, Radan. She found Radan’s mate Halla standing there. “Where have you been?” Halla asked angrily. “Dawdling again?” Halla raised a hand as if to slap Valri, but dropped it. “You’re so bony it’d just hurt my hand,” she said in disgust, jerking the water-skin out of Valri’s hands and turning back into her hut.

On her way to where the slaves stayed, Valri stopped by several of the mounds of garbage scattered around the sea people’s village. She found a few spoiled roots and some rotting, sprouting grain to take back to Karteri and Quen. Quen was the sea people’s other slave. She’d been captured the previous year and still survived. There’d been four slaves when Valri was first captured, but the fourth one had tried to run away a few hands of days ago. Radan led a group of men out who found and killed her.

From the sounds, it’d been a horrible death.

The girl’s body still lay on one of the garbage heaps, though Valri’d noticed that a leg was missing.

She worried that the sea people had eaten it.

If she was going to run away, she should have done it before it got so cold, Valri thought. And, before she got so hungry and weak.

I should have run away last fall myself.

Valri liked to think she would’ve taken the chance; if she’d had any idea they weren’t going to feed her over the winter.

Valri dreamed of running away anyway, though she knew she was too weak to get far.

She often thought, I’d rather be dead anyway… if it weren’t for the way they kill you.


***


Woday saw Pell get up and leave the cave. As he often did, Woday worried that perhaps his master didn’t like him and didn’t want to teach him. Or, perhaps, he was merely reluctant to order around someone older than he was. Woday had long ago adjusted to the idea that his master might be young, but nonetheless contained a genius worthy of respect. Being told what to do by someone so young didn’t bother him, but he thought it bothered Pell.

Woday hoped that the real reason was that Pell got ideas and went off to pursue them without even thinking about calling his apprentice. The way he got so focused when he had an idea made this seem plausible.

As Woday got to his feet and followed Pell out of the cave, he considered whether Pell might simply think of him as an apprentice bonesetter who, as such, wouldn’t be interested in Pell’s other projects. Outside the cave, he saw Pell walking across the little meadow. Woday trotted a little to catch up. “Pell, you forgot to take your apprentice with you!” he said in a lighthearted tone. “How am I ever going to learn if I’m not with you when you’re working your magic?”

Pell wore an expression of deep concentration. “Sorry.” He gave Woday an embarrassed look, “I’ve been thinking about the bird snare. I thought it would help me figure out how to improve it if I was looking at it.” They arrived at the bird snare Pell had set up last fall and Pell stopped, standing there just staring at it.

Woday frowned, “It works great. Why do you think you need to improve it?”

Even though it looked as if Pell was concentrating on the snare with such focus he might not realize Woday was speaking, Pell responded. “It works fine, but you can only put a snare like this one where there’s a springy sapling….”

Pell had simply trailed off as if in mid-thought so Woday looked around for another likely sapling while he waited a couple hands of heartbeats for Pell to continue. When Pell said nothing, Woday finally spoke himself, “Do we need more than this one?”

Pensively, Pell said, “We cut the top off this sapling last fall, so it’s been dead all winter. Wood that’s dead gets brittle.” He reached out and bent the sapling a little and Woday thought it did look stiffer than it had been. “I think if we tried to bend this one over enough to hook our snare loop to it, it’d probably break.”

“Oh,” Woday said, understanding the problem. “Do you want me to look for another sapling?”

“Sure,” Pell said, sounding like he hadn’t really been listening.

Wondering if perhaps he’d be better off staying with Pell, Woday wandered off around the edges of the clearing. He found a few saplings, but wasn’t sure whether they’d be satisfactory. He noted their locations and went back to find Pell.

Pell had a stick, about the length of the sapling, balanced over his arm. He was pushing down on the short end and watching the long end swing rapidly up into the air. Woday didn’t know what to make of this, so he said, “I found three saplings that might work. Do you want to look at them?”

“No, I’ve had a different idea. Let’s go get a hand axe.”

Thinking of his role as an apprentice-assistant, Woday turned, saying, “I’ll get one and be right back.” He trotted across the meadow to the cave.

Woday returned with one of the pile of hafted axes Yadin and Deltin had been making over the winter. They were planning to barter them at the River Fork trade meeting this summer and expecting to make a good profit. Woday thought it was crazy to use a hand axe when they had a stack of the hafted ones sitting around. Pell was still thoughtfully balancing his long stick over his arm, a distant look in his eyes.

Woday and Pell wandered out into the trees. Pell picked out four saplings three fingers thick and several that were two fingers thick, marking them with a blow from the axe. Then he said, “If you’ll finish cutting these down, I’m going to go look for rocks and thongs to finish my idea.”

As he walked away, Woday thought dispiritedly, As good as Pell is with an axe, it’d go faster if he cut these trees down while I looked for rocks and thongs. Sure enough, Woday was shortly making a hash out of cutting down the saplings, striking them wildly over broad areas before he finally weakened them enough to break them at the chopped section. He wondered if he should try to trim off the branches, but decided he should wait and see if Pell actually wanted the branches removed. Besides, the way Woday swung an axe, there was a good chance he’d damage the trunk if he tried to cut off branches.

When Woday dragged the saplings back to the front of the cave, he found Pell there talking to Gia. Pell had a selection of various sizes of heavy looking stones and a substantial bundle of thongs and cords with him.

Pell looked over the saplings, then took the axe from Woday and used it to cut the tops off the saplings, producing several foot-long stakes as he did it. With precise single blows, he cut off the branches, some right at the trunk and some several fingers away from the trunk. When Pell finished, Woday realized that three of the four heavy saplings he’d chosen all now ended in a Y-shaped fork at the top. Did he pick those three because they split into Ys at the top?

Pell handed the heavy saplings to Woday and said, “Can you char points on the bottom ends of these?” Then he picked up the foot-long stakes—which all had short stubs of branches at their bottom ends—saying, “And, char points on the top ends of these?”

“Sure,” Woday said, extremely curious about what Pell was going to be doing with the smaller saplings and, therefore, disappointed he wasn’t going to get to watch. He took the heavier saplings in to the fire inside the cave and began rolling their bottom ends back and forth in the flames until the tips had charred a bit. He brought them to hardened points by scrubbing charcoal off the ends against the stones around the fire pit.


Woday went back outside with his pointed stakes—three of them having the Y-forked tops. He found Pell binding heavy stones to the upper ends of the smaller saplings. He was using the cord to wedge the stones between the stubs of branches he’d left on the saplings. Woday eyed the shafts with the stones bound to the ends of them and said, “If you’re making some new kind of club, don’t you think the shaft needs to be stronger?”

Pell drew his head back as if startled. He studied the stick with the stone bound to the end of it. “Maybe you could make a club this way…” he said ruminatively. Then he looked up at Woday and frowned, “But it’d only be good for fighting, right? It seems to me that if you wanted a club for fighting, Deltin and Yadin’s hafted axes would be better.”

Woday’s eyes widened at the thought of using the hafted axes to fight. Partly in horror at the damage one could do, but also with the thought that, if he had to fight, he’d really like to have a hafted axe to fight with. And, I really hope the other guy doesn’t have one! After pondering that for a moment, he wondered, When did they get to be Deltin and Yadin’s hafted axes? It seems to me that Pell was the one who thought them up; Deltin and Yadin just make them.

Pell picked up his three saplings with the stones attached and walked off across the meadow. “If you don’t mind Woday, bring your stakes, and a good hammer stone.”

As Woday collected the stakes, he mused to himself that when he left his home tribe to seek this apprenticeship, he would never have expected his master to be so polite to him.

To say nothing of how much younger he’d be.


Pell stopped and laid his weighted sticks down near the sapling from last year’s trap. He took the heavy stake that didn’t have a Y at the top, looked one more time at the sapling from last year, then pounded the stake into the ground close to it. Once he had it seated, he wiggled it a little bit and pulled it back out of the ground. Then he took one of Woday’s Y topped stakes and put it in the hole, tapping it gently with the hammer stone to set it.

Woday shook his head when he realized that if he’d tried to drive the Y topped stake into the ground without first making a hole for it; the hammer stone would have broken the Y at the top. Where did he learn how to do these things?!

Next, Pell balanced one of the smaller saplings with the stone weights over the Y. Woday realized Pell had left a stub of branch on the small sapling that hooked against the Y. Thus, when the weight of the stone pushed the short end of the sapling downward, the sapling didn’t slide out of the Y.

The other end of the sapling—even though it laid across the Y far off center—wasn’t close to heavy enough to balance the weight of the stone. Woday thought Pell’d miscalculated. However, Pell merely asked Woday to hold the long end of the sapling down. Then Pell tied a long cord with a short stick on the end of it to the long end of the sapling. He fashioned a noose at the end of the long cord and draped it in a circle on the ground. He stepped over to get one of the foot-long stakes and barely hammered it into the ground in the middle of the circle.

Pell stepped back and looked over the entire set up with a look of fierce concentration on his face. He glanced at Woday and said, “Okay, let go.”

Surprised, Woday let go of the cord. As the weight on the other side of the Y fork dropped downward, the long end of the sapling rose into the air, pulling the cord. The noose closed around the stake, jerked it out of the ground, and flung it up into the air. At that point apparently the noose loosened slightly. The stake slipped out of it and flew almost all the way across the meadow.

Pell looked startled. He started across the meadow after the stake so Woday followed after him, wondering how a flying stake was going to capture an animal. It’d flown off at quite a speed, so Woday wondered whether it might be that Pell actually intended the stake to hit an animal like a spear or a stone would. How would he aim it? Woday wondered.

They’d reached the other side of the meadow and Pell was looking around. “Do you see it?” he asked.

Woday looked around. “Is that it?” he asked, pointing at what he thought was the stake in the middle of a bush.

“Oh, yeah!” Pell said, stepping to the bush and reaching in to pull the stake out. He studied the stake for a moment as if he were pondering its nature, then looked back across the meadow to where it had come from. He hefted it a couple of times, then threw it back toward the snare he’d been building. Woday was surprised to see that—though Pell looked like he had thrown it as hard as he could—it didn’t go all the way back over to the snare it’d come from.


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