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This book is available free. Read the Prologue and Chapter 1, and see if you want to continue.
The water is so cold! Liquid ice flows into Heather's mouth, into her lungs as she gasps from the shock of immersion in freezing fire. Her head is within the black depths, and a terrible thought beats into her mind as she coughs a great bubble: I'm drowning!
She is only seven years old, but she has had a warrior's training for seven years. Starved of air, chest convulsing, she nevertheless pushes down hard with both hands, kicks her feet like a frog and surges up, her head breaking the surface. And there is the tiny boat, with Toad's anxious little face half-lit by the two torches on the shore. The torch they had in the boat is gone, an oil-soaked straw bundle floating somewhere on the dark surface. The darkness of the huge Water Room is deepened by the feeble, flickering yellow light.
She is still freezing, still coughing, still distressed, but time slows to normal from the forever-now of an emergency.
"Oh Heather, I'm so sorry!" Toad was obviously stopping himself from crying with difficulty.
She managed a smile for her four-year-old youngerbrother. T-t-the w-w-water's nice. C'mon in!" she said, teeth chattering. Rather than risk upsetting the boat, she swam the few strokes to the smoothly worn limestone edge of the pond and scrambled out. Three months ago, when Grasshopper was born, the pond had been a great lake that almost filled the expanse of the Water Room. Now, in early summer, it had shrunk, and the underground creek feeding it was a trickle instead of the torrent of March.
The paddle was far too big for Toad, but somehow he wielded it well enough to reach shore. Heather leaned over and pulled the bow of the little wooden boat onto rock. Leaving their fishing gear, hand in hand they went up the steps, through the heavy drapes into the warmth of the Home Room, to face Lichen's scolding, and her efficient help.
Soon, Heather was in warm dry clothes, huddled near the fire on the soft furs covering the floor. She managed not to pull a face as she dutifully sipped the horrible-tasting herb tea Lichen had brewed up.
Oh, I'm so lucky to have such a lovely home, she thought, the sudden terror of death making her see the familiar Home Room with a stranger's eyes.
This, the entrance room to the enormous cave complex, was almost a circle. Porcupine, her senior parent, could span it in eleven paces, but if a Giant were ever to find it, she'd need no more than eight. The low, domed ceiling was black from the soot of ages, so that the several smoke holes were hard to spot. They led into a higher gallery that cleverly diverted the smoke into a nearby little valley. As Heather had often been told, it was essential to keep Ehvelen homes hidden from Giants, even during times of peace.
Soft, moss-filled mattresses and bolsters on each of the twenty sleeping ledges, even the ones currently unused, were covered by beautiful woven quilts. Dressers holding ceramic crockery and shiny cooking utensils masked parts of the white limestone wall. Giants didn't know how to make flat glass, but the shelves of the dressers had sliding leadlight fronts. Ehvelen had many secrets like this.
Colorful wall hangings covered much of the remaining wall space, almost glowing in the soft golden light of the lamps burning herb-scented oil.
Old Sweep pushed through the entrance curtain and, sensing Heather's distress, padded across to her. The large, grey, wolf-like dog touched her nose to Heather's face, then snuggled around her in an arc. The little girl gratefully cuddled herself into the soft warm fur.
"All right, love, you warm yet?" Lichen asked.
"Tell me what happened."
Toad spoke first, "It was, it was my fault. I cast the line and lost my balance. Heather saved me from falling in, and..."
"And fell in instead," the girl continued ruefully.
The entrance curtain stirred again and Seal came in on soundless feet, carrying three birds and a rabbit, already skinned and gutted. Shamrock was right behind him, with Porcupine last. They had small game too. All three wore hunting clothes: grey woollen trousers and jacket, with green spots dyed in a random pattern, and were armed with bow and arrows, sling and stones, and a dagger. Shamrock also carried the baby in a cloth sling that could be worn against her chest, or to one side allowing archery.
"Oh, I'm so tired!" Shamrock groaned. She was not yet seventeen, with the strong, broad-shouldered body of Ehvelen women, but this had been her first excursion since Grasshopper''s birth. Her hair, dark with a hint of red, was pulled back into a ponytail, exposing her pointed ears. The lovely pale oval of her face was bedewed with tiny droplets of sweat that caught the light, glistening like golden jewels. Even Shamrock's body scent spoke to Heather of her exhaustion. She flopped onto the rocking chair Seal had made for her when she'd got pregnant.
Porcupine took her prey from her and deposited the two lots of little carcases onto the copper-lined benchtop of a dresser. "We met the Ceili," he said with a grin on his battered old face. "Seal amused him and his guest with a bit of magic."
"We've had some excitement too," Lichen answered in a dry voice. "Heather went for a swim in the pond."
Seal shot his daughter a swift look. "That'd be cold!"
"It was!" Heather answered with feeling, at the same time as Lichen's "It wasn't on purpose."
"We were trying out those new silver hooks you taught me to make. I thought it was time for Toad to learn fishing."
Toad chipped in for the first time, "And I mucked it up, and nearly fell in, and Heather saved me, and..."
Moving with economical speed, Seal took a step, stooped, then had Heather in his arms, hugging her to his chest, his brown beard resting on her still-wet dark hair. "And she was a Swallow born The Rapids. I'm proud of you, darling." Heather glowed at the compliment. She lovingly hugged her junior parent, the strongest yet gentlest person she knew.
"They didn't catch anything, though," Lichen added, still in that dry voice. Everyone but Heather laughed, even Toad appreciating the typical Ehvelen joke. The little girl only managed a smile.
Every summer, the Family visited their nearest Ehvelen neighbors, two days' walk away. This pleasure had been deferred by Shamrock's need to recover from the birth, but now she declared herself to be fit enough. They set off on the following day.
Heather was excited, for she loved visiting High Cliffs. She couldn't keep still, but jumped up and down, sang a silly song, and constantly got in the way during the hour or so of necessary preparation after morning Weapons Practice and breakfast of reheated roast rabbit. Finally, Lichen put on her mock severe expression and growled, "Sweetface, if you don't settle down, we'll leave you behind."
But at last they were off, inland towards High Cliffs. When they were well on the way, Heather thought about all the exciting things that she'd do there. It was a pity that Mushroom was gone, she'd done her Deed of Daring and married into a Family, far away on the Great Isle. Still, that left two other children, Horse and Strawberry. She thought of the wonderful, rough-faced cliffs where you could clamber about. Last year, Mushroom had taught her to abseil, and that was even better than jumping into the sea in the flying gown Mother had made for her towards the end of last summer. Heather shivered, yesterday's icy swim still with her. After an abseil, you land on solid ground.
Then there were the ponies. Horses were just not possible at Happy Cave, but High Cliffs had a whole herd, and riding was an important part of weapons training as well as a joy.
Much of the leisurely three days on the track was occupied with hunting and weapons training, and so had to be in silence. But in between, Heather told Toad all about High Cliffs. He'd been there last summer of course, but remembered very little. After all, that was a quarter of his life ago!
They slept in the open each night, enjoying the glory of the clear summer night sky. On the third morning, Porcupine said, "Children, now we must gather and hunt more than usual."
"Why?" Toad had to ask. That was his favorite word.
Lichen explained, "We're going visiting. When you do that, you do so with food in your hands."
They were passing through rough, mountainous country by then, and the vegetation was quite different from that on the limestone-based, seaside growth of home. Heather accompanied Seal while Toad went off with Porcupine, both learning about the offerings the Mother had placed in this kind of land. Heather's bag was half full of tasty fungi, nettles that were delicious when boiled and a few early blackberries, when she spotted a little tunnel entering a thicket of prickly leaves. She pointed to it.
Seal's hands moved in the sign language Heather had recently started to learn. He signed slowly, but still needed to whisper in the end, 'Porcupine'. Working in silence, and with care for the sharp thorns, they used their razor-sharp daggers to enlarge the tunnel, then Heather squirmed in. Her left hand found the hole in the soil. She felt rather then heard the terrified little animal's breathing as she suddenly thrust forward with the child-sized sword she'd pushed ahead of herself with her right hand. It then took considerable effort to fish the spine-covered little body out, but she knew that no taste could beat roast porcupine. Torn between pity for her victim and jubilation at the successful hunt, she skinned and gutter her prey with Seal's help before rejoining the others.
Just after noon, Heather was the first to hear a distant, silver-clear trill. "What bird's that?" she asked.
Everyone stopped to listen, then Porcupine chuckled, "Sparrow!"
Toad was indignant. "A sparrow sounds like this:" and he chirped.
Laughing, Heather explained, "He means Sparrow, the junior husband. He always plays music." She started to skip ahead in time to the tune, and soon the whole Family followed her example.
At last they were in the cliff-enclosed circle of High Cliffs, and had a joyful reunion with their neighbor Family. Heather's porcupine was well received. Three-year-old Strawberry tried to be a second mother to Grasshopper, while the two four-year-olds, Toad and Horse, instantly reverted to being twins. In contrast, Heather felt herself to be almost an adult.
Heather and the two boys went for a ride in the morning. It was wonderful to be on horseback again. She allowed Horse to lead because he knew the local terrain better. After a lot of fun for child and pony both, they headed homewards at a gallop. Her hair whipped back by the speed of their passage, Heather guided her pony behind Horse's, weaving among the trees, over a fallen log, her mouth open with joy. Suddenly she heard a sharp, high sound like a cat being stepped on. She looked behind to see Toad's pony well back, riderless. She whistled "Stop" to her mount and pulled on the reins. Hearing her, Horse followed her example. They rode back, to find Toad entangled within a huge clump of blackberry.
"You all right?" Heather asked anxiously even while sliding to the ground.
Toad took a ragged breath, but managed not to cry. He was a warrior in training! "I can't move," he managed.
Heather gingerly tried to free her youngerbrother while Horse rode off to get help.
She was scratched on both hands without having got very far when the adults arrived. They soon freed the little boy. Then Lichen was hugging her son, and checking him for damage. "He's all right, thank the Mother, just bruised and scratched," she said.
Pine led Toad's pony forward. "C'mon, fella," she commanded, "Up you go."
"Yes," Seal added, "it's better to be a Swallow born The Rapids than a coward." In his four short years, Toad had often heard this saying. Swallow born The Rapids was one of the Ehvelen's favorite heroes, from fifteen hundred years ago, the time of the Stories, the time when magic started...
In those ancient days, Ehvelen Families had just one child at a time. They had not yet been plagued by Giants' diseases, or by the insanity of one person killing another. They were hunters, not warriors, for they knew no people other than their own, and every Ehvel learned to recognize the warm comfort of the Mother's presence within her being. How can you deliberately harm someone who also shares this wonderful experience?
So, the little people of the Original Forest lived long. Back in the mists at the beginning of time, the Mother had taught Her daughters how to limit the birth of children through the careful use of sixteen plants. Children were only allowed to be born to replace untimely deaths, and when a child of a Family attained adulthood.
The child of this Family had just turned seven. He was an unremarkable boy to look at -- normally. But now, now he was a running statue in oozy black mud. His straight brown hair was usually a tangle. Now it was a semi-solid black maelstrom that trickled rivers of mud down his bare back, over his face, on top of mud caked there so thickly that none of his hundreds of freckles were visible. Two excited blue eyes glittered through long eyelashes bedecked with mud as he forced his sturdy little body into a last desperate sprint towards the oval mudbrick house. He felt as if his lungs would burst. The weight of the sodden trousers dragged at every step, and he was tempted to throw away the mud-weighed shirt he held in his right hand. His little bronze dagger was still in its sheath, but his sling was gone, and the weight of the stones had torn the pouch off its loop.
"Mother! Fox! Trout!" he shrilled over the ever-present song of the rapids that gave the Family their name, though he hardly had breath left for shouting.
Three of his five parents were outside in front of the house, enjoying the early summer sunshine. The junior husband, twenty-two-year-old Trout, was an exact adult copy of his son (but without the mud). He had a long-handled bronze spade over his shoulder, and was on the way to dig a hole behind the house for a new latrine, more to pass the time than from urgent need. The junior wife, Foxglove, was thirty-seven, a graceful blonde woman widely admired for her kindness among a people where kindness was a universal habit. She was doing nothing more important than sitting on the fragrant ground cover, admiring the beauty of the tumbling creek. And the third person there was middle-aged Fox. His face was one no-one would forget, for it was stamped with a calm nobility. He had deep-set eyes, a straight, prominent nose and a square chin. Everyone in that part of the Forest turned to Fox of The Rapids for advice and leadership. Right now, he was on his hands and knees, unrolling a fishnet he was planning to repair.
The three of them looked up at the shout. "Mother help us, a monster from the depths of the earth!" Trout said with mock fright.
"Swallow! What happened to you, love?" Foxglove asked at the same time, alarm in her voice.
"Fire!" Swallow panted, "There's a fire somewhere, I saw a smoke signal, couldn't read all of it, but one word was 'fire', and..."
"And that got you covered in mud?" Trout asked, being just as irrepressible as his son.
Hearing their voices, Thyme put her grey head out the open door of the house. Her blue eyes opened wide and she spoke over the others, "Swallow, into the creek, now."
"But, but, there's a fire somewhere."
Fox offered, "I'll go and check for the signal. You've a wash, then you can tell us about it."
No smoke signal was visible as yet from where they stood, so Fox strode off towards the back of the house. He returned at speed long before Swallow was clean. "The boy's right," he called. "Wildfire near the river, north of here. All help requested."
The adults were packed and ready to go by the time Swallow was clean and dry. Even sixty-eight-year-old Thyme was going. Vole, the senior partner, had come out too, with clean clothes for the child. He and Swallow were to stay behind.
"Before we go, love," Foxglove asked, "tell us how you got so muddy."
"I was doing my Responsibility. You know that swallow nest in a hole high up in the oldest oak by the swamp? I'd seen both parents flying off, so wanted to check how many of the eggs'd hatched. Then I saw the smoke balls, could read only two words, 'calamity' and 'fire', so came down fast..."
"Too fast?" Thyme interrupted.
"Too fast. And lost my hold and went tumbling. It was all right, if only I'd been over solid ground I could've landed right, I slowed myself all the way, but I went straight into the quicksand. Ugh!" He shuddered at the memory.
So did the adults. "You could've died," Foxglove said in a level tone of voice, for a hunter is trained to show no emotion, but her glistening eyes betrayed her distress.
"Fox's taught me what to do, and I did it." Swallow looked proud. "Landed flat on my back with spread arms and legs, then eased off my shirt and used it as a scoop to pull myself to shore."
"Well, darling," Trout told him, "you're a calamity like I always was. But don't worry, the Mother looks after the likes of us!"
In turn, the adults kissed the ancient man and the little boy, and went off to fight a fire that had no business to threaten the Forest so early in summer.
That fire was the start of a terrible change in the life of the Ehvelen. The book tells of two years of adventure, all through Swallow's eyes. At the end, he becomes a hero.
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