Granite grey and bellicose, the rain clouds swept down from the distant northern sea. Funnelled between mountains and out onto the flat plains of the Summer Lands they emptied themselves over the marshes where Edan’s Tribe were struggling their way north.
Bluebottle-fat raindrops drummed off their upturned faces, splashing staccato amongst the reeds and soaking the soft leather of their clothes. Falling curtains of rain hid the pale spring sun, turning the marshlands brown and drab. When it became clear that this was more than a passing shower they looked for shelter. The Elder, whose knowledge of the land was legendary, and whose pride in his navigational abilities was equally large, kept insisting that the next dip or turn of the path would reveal a copse or a stand of trees where they could find refuge, but the only things that emerged from the rain were leafless willows and gurgling sedge.
“We’re lost, aren’t we?” said Uch, the younger of the Tribe’s two Hunters. “You don’t know where we are.”
“Of course I know!” the Elder snapped, striding ahead.
Edan held his tongue. As the youngest male it wasn’t his place to speak out, but he suspected that Uch was right. Of course he trusted the Elder’s wisdom, but the once familiar landscape of the Summer Lands had changed almost beyond recognition, vanishing under creeping waters and floods that never receded. Seven days before, when they had set out from the Winter Home to make for the Summer Hunting Grounds, the route had been familiar enough, worn by the feet of countless generations; but with each passing day they had recognised less and less.
The journey had been ill-omened from the start, or so Edan thought. The winter snows had lingered, wrapping the edge of the Great Wood in ice well into the spring, and they had already been short of food before they set out. When the girls - Brina and Morna - had gone to fill the beech nut sacks, they had come out half empty. And Cinnia - Second Mother now - had given birth to her first child at the tail end of winter. She carried the baby swaddled in elk fur, but he was still so small. Would a few weeks more in the winter country have been so bad? Tradition demanded that they set out when the first full Moon of spring rose over the Long Stone, and arrive at the coast by the following dark; but would the moon really have been angered if they had waited till the baby had been named before they left? Edan gritted his teeth at the unpleasant chill of raindrops trickling down the small of his back and thought bad things about Tradition.
Eventually the rain slackened off, but not before most of them were wet through and tired. Only then did the Elder call a halt, striding off alone and stiff-backed up a rise to ‘survey the land ahead.’
Edan crouched down by the edge of the trail, trying to recognise something, anything, familiar in the land around him. Had this curve of water been grass the year before? Was the flat rock out beneath the water the same boulder from which he had caught that magnificent pike the pervious autumn? He couldn’t tell.
A little way ahead, at the base of the rise, First Mother was organising the others into a makeshift camp. There was a stand of alder trees clustered at the edge of the water - Edan thought that they looked like arrow heads poking up out of the earth - that had kept a little patch of earth tollerably dry. By the time Edan joined them the rest of the Tribe had settled gratefully in the lee of the trees, dumping their burdens on the ground and hanging their wet clothes on the branches to dry.
Edan stood a little way off from the others, his pack still on his back and his fishing spear in his hand. He stared out over the water beyond the alders, trying to spy the landmarks that he guessed the Elder would be looking for. All he could see were reed beds and murky water, heavy with silt, spreading out in every direction. A faint pall of mist, drawn out of the reeds by the sun, drifted over them, curling around the pale boles of leafless birch trees overrun by the water.
The Tribe 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, wolfing down the first before passing round 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.
Edan waited for Maccus to take up his bow or spear. Maccus was the Hunter, and by rights he should call for a hunt. He must see that they needed fresh meat; but Maccus only pulled his buckskins closer and stared northwards. Uch, as second hunter, could have raised the matter, but he paced uneasily near to Second Mother and his baby, his eyes on the path that the Elder had taken. What was Maccus thinking? It was hard to guess - Maccus always kept 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 might not be the Hunter, but he was still the Fisher, for what that was worth. 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 protect the sinew bindings from the rain. He was sure that the spirit of the spear must have chafed at his disrespect. It had not been made for walking, and he 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 fresh 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 with wide eyes from the shelter of the hut door. He’d tried tying his own sinew 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. There were trout lurking amongst the sedge, hovering at the edge of the current. He could see the golden glint of their scales in the brown water, constantly sliding away as he approached them. He brushed his fishing charm with the tips of his fingers for luck, feeling the soft indents of carvings worn smooth by countless such touches. 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 approached, 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 its mouth and snapped its neck. When it stopped thrashing 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 he had already come. 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 reed beds 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. He had good reasons to fear the water, but those were things he deliberately refused to think about. Instead the fear was just an embarrassment, even when there was no one else to see it. What good are you, he berated himself, a man afraid of water in a land covered in it.
Tentatively he prodded ahead with the shaft of his spear, persuading 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 he went straight into a hidden drop, the water 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. He jerked backwards, his back colliding with something solid under the water. His questing hands found cold wood, invisible in the water’s murk, and he scrambled onto a submerged structure sunk into the river’s muddy depths.
Reaching down Edan felt at the solid wood under his feet, cool and smooth in the current. His fingertips explored beams stripped of bark and posts festooned with weed and algae; all reassuringly solid. 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 the Marsh people would come out to watch, standing in silent groups at the mouths of huts built out 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 dark slope cloaked with leafless 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. The realisation changed the view 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 golden flowers for eyes, clutching for what was once theirs 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 its living trees, and received a second shock. On the ridge-top a figure had appeared, silhouetted black 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 axe 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, only 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.