Edan bent down by the side of the trail, dipping one hand into the lapping water. The ground was warm, but the water was cold despite the afternoon sun and heavy with silt. He looked around, trying to recognise something, anything, in the land around him. Had this curve of water been grass the year before? Was the rock he could see beneath the water the place he had once stood to cast his spear into the river? He couldn't tell.
Seven days before, when the Tribe had left their winter home to make for the Summer Hunting Grounds, the route had been familiar, worn by the feet of countless generations, but now he felt like a stranger in his own country. Every year the water swallowed more of the land, drowning trees and landmarks alike, and it seemed to him now that the waters rose faster each time they made the journey.
Up ahead the Elder called a halt, leaving First Mother to organise the rest, clambering alone to the top of a small rise to survey the land ahead. The Elder had always prided himself on knowing every rock and stone of the Summer Lands, but more than once this year he had seemed unsure of the way ahead. Edan wondered if it was simply age, or if the land was changing beyond their ability to cope.
Edan had thought that the was journey ill-omened from the start. The winter snows had lingered, wrapping the edge of the Great Wood in ice long past their normal time, and they had been short of food even before they set out. When the girls, Brina and Morna, had gathered up the fish leather sacks that held the beech nuts, they had found them already half empty. Worse Cinnia had given birth to her first child a few months before and become Second Mother, but the baby was still so small, swaddled in its covering of elk fur. Would a few weeks more in the Winter country have been so bad? Tradition demanded that they set out when the full moon rose over the Long Stone, and arrive by the dark of it, but would the moon really have been angered if they had waited till the baby had been named before they left? Not his decision to make. He was only the youngest male.
Edan stood, shouldering his pack and fishing spear. Reed beds and murky water spread in every direction, seemingly without limit. Edan tried to look on them with an Elder's eye, to know the land, but all he could see beyond the reeds were clumps of birch trees that had been overrun by the water, and were now just pale sticks reflecting a new lake.
There were alder trees at the base of the Elder's hill, clustered close to the flooded bank, the reeds running right to their trunks. By the time Edan caught up to the rest of the Tribe they had settled gratefully in the lee of the trees, dumping their burdens on the ground and taking shelter from the wind that blew up over the water. At First Mother's instruction they gathered together what food they had left.
They had caught a roe deer buck three days before and a little of the meat remained. Now First Mother set to work slicing thin strips off the haunch, eating the first hungrily before setting aside the others. The girls pooled the remaining beech nuts, while Grandmother, whose teeth were worn almost to stubs, began to chew dry roots, softening them with her spit. Second Mother's baby began to cry, a reedy plaintive wail that echoed out over the mere until she shushed him, pulling her furs close and curling up against the alders. In moments she was asleep. The journey had been especially hard on her.
Uch, who was now Father to Second Mother's baby, paced uneasily, turning constantly uphill as if he wanted to follow the Elder to the hill's crest. Edan only spared him a glance, watching Maccus instead to see if he would take up his bow or spear for hunting. Maccus was the Hunter, and by rights he should be first to call for the seeking of game, but he only pulled his buckskins closer and stared northwards. Edan tried to guess what he was thinking, but it was difficult. Maccus generally held his own counsel. Maybe he was thinking that if Second Mother's baby survived then she might become First Mother, and Uch the Hunter. Maybe he was thinking that the infant might not survive the trip. Edan checked himself; bad thoughts, ill chance. Better to think of something else.
Edan's belly rumbled. He could see that there were birds on the water, and surely there would be fish as well. He did not have a bow or sling to hunt the birds, but he had his fishing spear, which for the past seven days he had used as a walking stick, with a bag of soft hide to cover the head and make sure that the rain could not soften the sinew bindings. He was sure that the spirit of the spear must have chafed at his disrespect. It had not been made for walking, and it would be doing it honour to hunt with it now, or so he told himself.
His own Father had given him the spear; it was his treasure. He had crafted the two points from deer antler, cutting teeth with a flint blade and smoothing them against a stone, before binding them into the shaft with sinew and pine resin. That had been at their old home by the sea, before the sea had washed it away, before everything had changed. Across the space of years he could still smell the pungent woodsmoke, and the sharp tang of the resin. Father's fingers had been stained dark from working the pine pitch soft, but they had been quick and sure, binding the points with practiced ease while Edan had watched from the shelter of the hut door, eyes wide. He'd tried tying his own knots with the scraps that Father had left over, but his finger's didn't have the knack of it. It would honour his Father, too, to use the spear ' and fill his belly.
There was a splash and a scatter of small birds. Almost without meaning too Edan had slipped away into the reeds, hurrying off the rise before First Mother or Maccus could call him back. A shock of cold water immersed him to the knees. He'd unbound his leggings and left them on the bank, and now he felt his way through the water with his toes, feeling roots and the tickle of little fish brush by. The sounds of his family faded away as he went deeper into the marsh, replaced by the buzz of insects and the soft splash of frogs hopping into the water. There were trout lurking by the edge of the sedge, hovering in the current amongst the shadows. He could see the golden glint of their scales in the brown water, constantly sliding away with the current as he approached them. He brushed his fishing charm with the tips of his fingers for luck, feeling the smooth antler shape where it dangled around his neck. He came up on the fish slowly, his spear raised and arms spread like a crane's wings, so that they did not see the edge of his shadow crossing them and scare.
Most of the fish made quick exits as he got close, but one fat trout was nibbling at some shoots and lagged behind. With a quick strike he snared it between the two prongs of his spear, jerking it from the river in a bright spray of water, and grabbing it before it could get away from him. It struggled in his grasp, strong and cold, before he got his fingers in it's mouth and snapped it's neck. When the fish was still he put it in the woven satchel at his hip and looked for another, but the shoal had sped away on the current.
He glanced back at the hill and the alder trees, surprised to see how far away he had already gone. Only one figure was visible, a splash of pale fur and a shock of tangled black hair; Uch, still pacing. One little fish would hardly feed all of them, nor would it justify his offence in going hunting before Maccus. There was no choice but to keep looking.
Away from the rise and the reeds the water ran faster and more powerfully, pushing insistently at Edan's legs as he waded into it. He stepped back, hesitating on the edge of the open water, his guts clenching in sudden fear. What good are you, he berated himself, a man afraid of water in a land that was covered in it. Tentatively he prodded ahead with the shaft of his spear, trying to persuade himself that it wasn't too deep, then forced himself to stop wasting time and stride forward like a proper Hunter. The water was amber brown, filled with drowned grass and silt, and the bottom fell away suddenly, surging up to his waist. At once the old familiar terror returned full force, the tumble of black water in the night, the numbing cold, the grasping hands, and he almost lost his footing again as he stumbled back. Windmilling he surged backwards into something solid. His questing feet found cold wood, invisible in the water's murk, and he scrambled onto a path suspended half way between the river's surface and it's muddy depths.
Reaching down Edan felt at the solid wood under his feet, cool and smooth in the current. With his fingertips he felt beams stripped of bark and posts festooned with weed and algae, assuring himself that it was solid and would not tip him back into the deep water. It called up a childhood memory of the Marsh people who had once made their homes along the inland rivers. When the Tribe had passed by on their journeys too and from the Summer lands the Marsh people had come out to watch, standing still in silent groups at the mouths of huts built into the water. Edan could picture their serious faces, painted white with clay like the faces of Coots. The Marsh people had driven stakes into the river bed and laid boles of wood on top of them, edged with woven hurdles, forming paths across the water. Maybe the solid wood beneath Edan's feet was the remains of one of their pathways, swallowed by the water. No other trace of the Marsh people remained above the rushing water.
Edan followed the submerged walkway deeper into the braided channels and swaying reeds. The sun was hot overhead and the water was cool. Little fish, too small for him to catch, darted around his ankles as he moved along, while a pair of ducks watched him from a distance, bobbing with the current. Ahead of him a ridge cast a long shadow across the water, the slope cloaked with flooded trees. Drifts of brushwood clogged the dead trunks where some surge of water had left them. Edan stared at the debris for a long time before he realised that he was seeing the wreckage of wooden platforms and birch back roofing, swollen and darkened by the water. Some trace of the Marsh people remained after all, and this was it. With that realisation the pale branches changed before his eyes. The pallid roots in the murky water became fingers, grasping blindly for some trace of life. Driftwood skeletons clung to the ruin of their former homes, festooned with cattail hair and golds for eyes, clutching for what was once their's despite the rushing water. Within the weed choked ruin the silent shapes of the dead watched him with cold serious faces. This was a taboo place, sacred ground, forbidden to the living. Only the old wood beneath his feet, placed so that the living might cross the water, kept him safe.
The sun passed behind gathering clouds, and the sudden chill broke Edan from his daze. The skeletons became branches, the grasping hands became roots and the pale faces faded back into the water's depths and were gone. He dragged his eyes away from the ruin of the Marsh people's huts, up to the ridge and it's living trees, and received a second shock. On the ridge-top a figure had appeared, black silhouetted by the pale sun. He held a long spear in his hands, and his head was crested with an animal's fur and ears. For a long terrifying moment Edan took him for another spirit, and his hand went instinctively to the charms strung about his neck, the hunting charm and the mother's charm and the carved tooth that had been his first. If this was an ancestor of the Marsh people come to punish him for breaking taboo then there was nothing that he could do but hope that his own Spirits might protect him. The figure was silent, unmoving. Then more figures joined the first, spear-armed men without the features of animals. Not spirits then but strangers, people not of the Tribe.
His first instinct was to raise his own spear in a sign of greeting, but caution stayed his hand. There had been tales of violence in the Summer lands, of people breaking all Tradition by laying spear and flint on one another. Tradition said he should bid the strangers welcome, but fear said otherwise.
A surge of water and the sudden touch of a hand on his arm made him cry out, but it was not a ghost of the drowned, but Maccus, come to chastise him for hunting out of turn. The Hunter had also seen the distant figures and any punishment was forgotten for now. 'Stand Still' he whispered 'Stay Silent.' And then 'Not all strangers are welcome in these days.'
The warning came too late. Edan and Maccus had been seen. On the shadowed ridge the first of the distant figures raised a spear, held horizontal against the sun in the sign of greeting. There would be a meeting after all.