Red-nose, as Tara thought of him, had a braying laugh that made him sound like he was on the verge of choking. Red-nose had been the one chosen to guard her when the rest of her captors went ahead, and now he leered and laughed, taunting her.
'You should be glad it's me that's watching you' he said. 'Some of the others, they wouldn't be so gentle.' Red-nose paced as he talked, one hand on his spear, the other scratching idly at the berry-like stain on his nose. It always looked like it itched terribly. 'They call you a monster, girl, say we ought to kill you. Not me. You know you can trust me eh?'.
They had bound Tara with strips of rawhide, wrists and ankles both lashed to a stout sapling so that her arms were pulled behind her and she could not rise. It forced her to crouch, knees spread and shoulders back, and she could see how Red-nose's gaze was fixed upon her bared breasts. She knew that he wanted to try his hand at her, now that he had her alone. She'd felt his eyes on her before as they had dragged her south, but he hesitated. She was sure that he remembered what she had done to Dog-breath when he had tried to take her against her will. His arm would heal, but only because he had had companions to pull her off him. Red-nose, alone, would get no such rescue.
Red-nose was still talking. She didn't fully understand the speech of her captors, but his tone had been honey-sweet over a violent edge. Whatever he had said seemed to have raised his courage, and now he was moving close with hand outstretched, grasping at her. Snarling, she bared her teeth, pulling back her lips to show a bite as wide as his hand, and growled like one of her captor's dogs, snapping at his fingers. He gave a cry of shock and stumbled back, pulling back his hand as if he'd been burnt. 'Animal!' he snapped. 'Beast! I'd rather rut with the dogs, at least they know how to listen!' He spat in her face, from a safe distance, and backed off. It was a poor victory. She was still bound and he would be plotting his revenge.
She wondered if it would have made a difference if she had been able to talk to them at the start. She knew that her captors thought that she could neither speak nor understand, but it was simply that their language was coarse and hard for one of the People to fit their tongues around. Amongst the People speech contained as many gestures as it did sounds, but these men knew nothing of that. Instead they jabbered at her in their burbling tongue, strutting their names and words proudly. She understood them only with difficulty, and was not sure that she could have made herself understood even if she had wanted too. As for their names, the mocking nicknames that she had given them fitted them far better.
As well as Red-nose and Dog-breath she had named: Four-finger, who seemed to have lost the smallest finger of his left hand, Forkbeard, Face-licker, who fawned for favour like a young hound, Gaptooth, Rat-tongue, Faint-heart, Burnt and Wolf-ear, who was their leader. Wolf-ear called himself Phelan, the only name she had made herself learn. He was the one who had captured her, and the only one of them that she truly feared. The eyes of the others showed simple disgust, or lust, when they looked at her, but the eyes of Phelan showed a fire that did not bode well for anyone that crossed him.
If only they hadn't captured her, if only she'd been able to fight or run. She knew that she was stronger than most of them, but the truth was that her capture had been laughably easy, over before she knew it had begun. Tara wasn't sure that she could have done anything to avoid this fate, other than stay at home, in the Stone Forest, where she belonged. But she had removed that possibility herself, on the day when the moon took it's first bite from the sun. That had been the day that had sent her North, away from the lands of the People and into the hands of these dog-lovers.
The Old Ones had come first, travelling from the River. They followed the old path, even though salt water now covered it up to their ankles and dirty mud covered the flower meadows. The seers made their home at the edge of the Stone Forest. Their hut was made from wood polished with age and roofed with turf squares that sagged low, so that it looked like a mound rather than a built thing. At the door were a pair of teeth as large as a man and more heavy. Successive generations of seers had carved the ivory with symbols of sun and moon till little unmarked tusk remained. When the Old Ones approached the seers cut fresh withies of willow, stripping them quickly to make white wands. They put furs across their shoulders and marked their faces with ash and then went to join them. Ama, who was the oldest of them, led the way, then Tara, and finally Esa, who had found her sight only the year before. Ama began the chant, a rumble in her chest in time with their walking, and the others joined her. Tara was pleased to see that long hours of practice had turned Esa's hesitant chant into one worthy of the Seers.
The Old Ones had come in response to signs they had seen in the patterns of bones that the advancing sea cast upon the shore. They came to seek the Seer's guidance. With words and gestures they asked if there was anything the People might still do before the last of them were gone and their ways were forgotten. Ama and the others agreed. They piled briar and broom inside the boundaries of the Stone Forest, and brought a spark of flame from the carefully tended fire inside their house to light it, knowing that the Spirits would come to the fragrant smoke. The Old Ones had brought hollow logs on which they tapped a relentless beat, echoing the stamping feet of kin who no longer lived. For three days, while the winter moon was full they stamped and danced about the need fire, their heads full of smoke and their bellies empty, until the moon turned upon the sun.
That was when the vision came to Tara. She was exhausted by then, her feet sore, her head spinning. Ama's chant and the Old Ones' beat had merged into one living thing that she could feel but no longer hear. Instead she thought that she heard the sea, pounding and surging as it crashed against the land. Then the water rushed over her head and she was tumbling beneath the waves. Below her she could see the Summer Lands, as if she had risen to the Moon's height, but the sea was still about her and the Moon was black against the sun. She was not alone in the ocean. In the North, where the ice still lay, she saw dark shapes within the sea, shapes that drove the water forwards on its relentless course. She knew them for the architects of the doom that was to come. The ocean rose at their command, and the Summer Lands fell. She tried to chase them, becoming a fish to forge the waves, and then a seal, silver as the moonlight, but they were faster than her, racing through the mud and the foam towards a single finger of stone that rose at the edge of the sea. She knew, with sudden clarity, that this was where they would gather when the Land's final doom was come.
That this was a true vision, all agreed. The land would drown and the People would pass from the world when the moon swallowed the sun entire, and then at the willing of those Tara had seen within the water's depths. They did not agree on what they should do about it. The oldest of the Old Ones said that she had seen the spirits of the dead. The second believed that it was monsters who led the sea. The last said that they did not know enough, to which the others grudgingly agreed. Ama said that they should return to the Stones until another vision made things clear. It had been Tara that had argued that the answers must lie in the North, in the realm of the ones she had seen, and that someone must go there to learn more. Ama told them that she knew of the single stone that Tara had seen. Its tale had been passed to her by the elders of her youth, even as she now taught Esa the same tales in the winter months. She named it with a gesture for height and the sea, Dentaltos the tooth of the North.
Once the suggestion was made it was clear that Tara must be the one to take the way North and find the creatures that gathered at the tooth. Ama was too old, and Esa too young. Now she cursed herself for feeling so proud to be chosen. If she truly had the sight she would have seen the fate that awaited her, captured and trussed like a hunted doe, prodded and abused by unkind hands. To think that Esa had been jealous of her, and she so confidant. Now it seemed that she would never reach the Northern sea, let alone learn the secret she sought. She rolled her eyes at her own past self.
'What are you looking at, eh!?' Tara realised that she had accidentally caught Red-nose's eye. He was crouched a few paces away from her, working a chunk of flint with the aid of a hard rock and a buckskin mat, striking sharp flakes of rock into his lap with every blow. Now he snatched up one of the flakes and was at her side before she could react, grasping her face with one hand as he pressed the flake against her cheek.
'Looking at me with those eyes!' he panted, 'I ought to cut them out! Lets see what witch powers you have then!' The hot stink of his body was overwhelming, the rancid smell of badly cured hides and unwashed flesh. She could hear the growl of one of the dogs, awoken by the sudden commotion, but all she could see was the mirror-bright edge of the flint that filled her vision. She tried to struggle, if she could only break her bonds and get her hands around his neck, but her struggles just dug the blade into her flesh, spilling blood down her cheek. Red-nose just laughed and pressed closer, his flesh against hers, overbearing her with his height. He spoke low and dangerous now, his breath gusting into her face as if he wanted to fill her up with it. 'Phelan wants you alive, says your blood will scare away the forest spirits, but you don't need eyes for that.' She rolled her eyes, glancing wildly in every direction as if she could find an escape from the slowly approaching edge of stone but there was no way out. It was against the soft flesh beneath her eye, now against the lid, now pressing ever so lightly against the eye as he drew out the torture, aroused by the violence.
'Cahal stop! Down!' the shouted voice snapped orders at Red-nose as if he was one of the hounds and he reacted the same way, jerking back and down into a crouch, teeth bared and eyes wide. The flake blade dropped from his hand into the rough grass at Tara's side.
Phelan and two more of his men emerged from the bushes, spears rattling in their hands. Phelan wore his headdress of wolf-skin, ears pricked and teeth framing his face. His cold eyes took in the damage to Tara's face, then flicked back to Red-nose. 'I said she was not to be harmed.' Phelan said this in an even tone, almost as if he was bored, but even Tara could feel the threat. Red-nose obviously felt it too, mumbling an apology that Tara didn't fully understand. Phelan hefted an axe of green jadeite in his hands. Its head was so polished that it caught the sun like water. No other in Phelan's band carried such a weapon. Red-nose tried to keep his eyes on the ground and on the moving axe at the same time, and Tara heard him gulp in fear. No laughter for Red-nose now.
The confrontation was over almost as quickly as it had begun. Forkbeard, who seemed to be Phelan's most trusted, emerged from the path that Phelan had taken and the wolf-men's leader seemed to forget about Red-nose and his offence. He turned aside and began to direct his companions to gather up the packages of fur and hide that they had left behind. 'We go to a meeting,' he said to Red-nose, without turning around to look him in the eye. 'There are others in the marsh, hunters, fishermen. Since you cannot be trusted with the girl, you can heave the packs.'
Forkbeard carried a hollow horn full of seal fat, with which he slicked his hair and twisted his beard into spikes. While he toyed with his hair, and the others laughed at Red-nose's shame, no one spared a glance for Tara at the tree. Slowly, painfully, she stretched her fingers, trying to reach the discarded blade while looking away from it, but it was just beyond her. Daring everything she waited until the packing of the camp had started, and strained against her bonds, twisting her leg until she felt the cold flint against the sole of her foot. With a stifled grunt of effort she nudged it closer and closer.
Forkbeard chose that moment to turn his attention to her. For a horrible instant she thought that he had seen her awkward struggles and found her out, but Forkbeard had not seen the blade fall, and if he noticed that the prisoner was writhing in her bonds he did not seem to spare a thought for why. With rough hands and simple words he loosed her bonds and then dragged them tight one more, lashing her wrists to a leather cord so that she could be led, and knotting a second cord from ankle to ankle so that she could stumble but not run. To be trussed and led in this way was shameful, intolerable, but she did not protest, even when she was prodded forward with the butt of Gaptooth's spear, because what Forkbeard had not seen, what no one had seen, was the knife-sharp flake of flint grasped tight inside her fist.