from Chapter 1: the White Arrow

Walking back Rabbit noticed smoke pouring from Retté’s lodge, and he hesitated. It was cool to walk nearly naked, but inside a lodge with blankets and family it would be more than warm enough. It was midsummer, and Retté often complained of the heat. The smoke was billowing thickly from the smoke hole, it eased from between the mats, it leaked out the door. Rabbit started forward, knowing instinctively something was wrong even as he knew the lodge was not on fire.

He scratched lightly at the hide over the door. There was no reply. He pulled the hide aside. "Awa, Retté," he said, and crouched into the doorway.

Smoke swirled in the height of the lodge. Something bulky that was not wood lay in the fire, pawed by thick fingers of smoke. Retté sat at one side, wearing only his loincloth, his skin shining darkly with sweat. He turned toward Rabbit. His eyes were bright and red from the sting of the smoke. He dropped them to the ground, ashamed to be found by a kinsman. Across the fire sat a lowlander.

For a brief moment Rabbit remembered seeing lowlanders in his dreams. There was a blond woman, an old man, but as always what was before him did not match his night terrors. This lowlander was small, bright-eyed, foolish. He was a peddler, a simple lowland trader of the kind that had been very common before the trading posts grew up on the forest edge. He had come into the forest to get a pack full of furs for a few knives or a blanket.

The object in the fire was a sleeping fur.

Looking around the lodge, Rabbit saw other things amiss. The blankets Retté had hung at either side of the lodge were missing. None of the sleeping furs were on the ground nor folded in the corner. The only sitting blankets were the ones Retté sat on, and the one the peddler sat on. The barrels that would hold this year’s grain were missing. So were the hoe and threshing stick. Most of the dried meat that should have hung from the ceiling was gone. Even Retté’s wife Febe and his nephew Javel were not there. Retté’s bow hung alone from the roof poles.

"Ah! Another guest," said the peddler in the lowland tongue, and he smiled delightedly. "You should offer him some refreshment." The peddler lifted a leather bottle of Retté’s whiskey and filled a tin mug until the bottle ran empty. He tossed the empty bottle in the fire. Rabbit noticed now, under the bulk of the slowly burning fur, the hoops of barrels, and the blade of Retté’s hoe.

"I cannot get him to leave," Retté said through clenched teeth.

"Come in, come in," the peddler said, waving at Rabbit. He placed the mug on the ground.

Retté was known in the village for being easy to trick. He would not live in Cruzari if it were not so. He had come on bride hunt, declared love for young and beautiful Febe, and promised to marry her at the marriage feast. She told him she had conceived his child. Rabbit didn’t think Retté hadn’t heard the rumors--that she had been pregnant a month before his arrival. He thought rather that for Retté to entertain these rumors he had to call her a liar, and admit that he had declared love to a false woman. Retté could not face such shame, so instead he professed to believe the child was his. That Febe had miscarried allowed the question to die with the child, although the shame lived on.

Then there was Febe’s brother Jicio, who had gone to Grilio to marry his bride. When she died, Jicio declared he would return to the village of his birth as soon as the harvest had been brought in, and there he would raise his son, Javel. He brought the half-witted boy to Febe and Retté, and asked them to watch him while he brought in his harvest. Retté could not refuse without betraying his wife's family, or admitting he did not want to care for a half-wit, or accusing Jicio of planning to abandon the boy. So Javel stayed with Retté, and Jicio went to Grilio, promising to return after the harvest. After the harvest Jicio’s mother-in-law took ill, and he would return when she was well. After she was well it was winter, and he would return in spring. After winter he had promised to help a neighbor plant, and so on until one summer word came back that Jicio had gone to Antepi and remarried.

The leather whiskey bottle in the fire popped with a loud bang, scattering sparks and embers. Retté slapped at a spark that had landed on his leg. The peddler grinned innocently at Rabbit.

Rabbit pushed inside against the wave of heat flowing out the door. The smoke stung at his eyes and stank of burning fur. He squatted down on the ground.

"Se, when you try to throw him out, what happens jo?" Rabbit asked. He checked the peddler’s face, but he seemed, like most lowlanders, to have no understanding of the Old Tongue.

"Awa. I cannot get my hands on him, and in the struggle I ruin what little of my belongings he hasn’t burnt or eaten." Retté tossed his chin at a pile of pot shards mixed with last year’s flour. "I cannot even murder him. I’d never get his ghost out of my lodge."

"Febe and Javel are where jo?" Rabbit asked.

"I sent them to her sister’s lodge," Retté said.

"Won’t you sit?" the peddler asked Rabbit. "Won’t you trade? I have built a warm fire for your comfort, I have offered you food. Let us exchange goods."

Rabbit stayed squatted on his heals. "You want what of my kinsman jo?" Rabbit had learned the lowland language on visits to the trading post. It was the one thing he knew he could offer his people--apart from people like his nephew’s wife, who was born lowland, he was easily the most fluent man in the village.

"Trade," the peddler said, and gnawed on a length of dried venison.

"You want furs jo?" Rabbit asked.

"Possibly," the peddler said.

"My kinsman has no furs today," Rabbit said. "Maybe you will go to another village and ask them."

"I will wait here until he has some," the peddler said.

"He will not leave," Retté said helplessly.

Rabbit ignored him. "You have burnt many of my kinsman’s goods, se."

"He had little firewood to hand," the peddler said. "It would have been ungracious of me not to build him a warm fire."

"It is some kind of lowland jole, isn't it," Retté said, referring to the mischievous forest spirits.

Rabbit shook his head. "Se, I do not know if they have jole in the lowlands." Then he addressed the peddler, "If he finds you furs, you will give him what for them jo?"

The peddler smiled. He reached under his jacket and drew out a single arrow. The shaft and quills were pure white. The head gleamed bright in the red light of the fire.

Rabbit shook his head. "Se. Arrowheads are six a pelt."

"This is not an ordinary arrow. It will never fail its mark."

Rabbit turned to Retté. The young man barely raised his eyes to Rabbit. "There is a beaver pelt I have been saving. Se, I could offer it to him, and maybe he will go."

"Awa," Retté answered. "I would be very grateful to anyone who could get him out of my lodge. He has burnt or eaten everything."

"I will bring you a beaver pelt," Rabbit said to the peddler.

"No," said the peddler. "My price is this: he shall take the arrow and go hunting. He shall shoot the arrow once. If it hits and kills what he has aimed at, then he shall bring it to me, and that shall be my price. If it does not, then I shall get nothing."

Rabbit translated for Retté.

"If you get him out of here, se," Retté said, "I shall give you whatever I hit second with this arrow."

"Se, it is not needed," Rabbit said. "I have only given you talk." What he meant was that Retté’s family had lost their grain stores, their winter clothes, and most of their dried venison. Retté would need everything he could gather in the remains of the summer to lay in against the winter. But if Rabbit had said that openly he would have insulted Retté as a provider, and then Retté would insist on rewarding him.

Retté stood and untied his bow from the rafters. "Accept gift," he said, dropping the pronoun as did many of Uliante who knew little of the lowland tongue. "Promise, give peddler first kill."

The peddler passed the white arrow to Retté.

Rabbit followed Retté from his lodge, gratefully drinking in the cool morning air. It was no wonder Retté had not been able to understand the peddler. The smoke and heat in that lodge would make anyone stupid. Above them the sky had brightened to blue. In a moment, the village would stir and awake.

"Se, perhaps I will stay by your lodge for awhile," Rabbit said to Retté.

"Se," Retté grunted, still keeping his eyes averted. "There is nothing left to protect. It would be better to watch your own lodge and see he does not go there. If he keeps his word, he will leave now."

Then before Rabbit realized what was happening, Retté had fitted the arrow to his bow and drawn the string back to his cheek. He was aiming high, up over the village, over the forest, to the fir tree peeking above the forest canopy, where the first light of dawn was splashing gold on one side of the highest branches.

"Awa, you’ll land in the fields," Rabbit said.

Retté loosed the arrow. It sailed straight and true, out over the village, over the fields, over the forest, to brush the top of the tree and disappear. But Rabbit realized, once it was gone, that the thrush had still been there on the highest branch.

Retté lowered his bow, and his mouth sagged.

"If I thought I could have hit it, I would not have aimed at the thrush," he said hollowly. "A squirrel or a wood mouse or anything."

"It was an accident," Rabbit said, equally stunned at the impossible shot. "You could not have known."

Retté turned his face away. "If only the peddler will keep his word and go." He strode across the village, toward the tall fir and his kill.

Rabbit watched him go with unease. It was ill luck for this peddler to choose Retté. He was not a thoughtful man. Shrewd Obetere would surely have outsmarted the peddler. Ruthless Rastián would surely have killed him, ghost be damned. Even Rabbit, hardly known as the wisest of the village, had been able to negotiate a solution quickly. But the peddler had gone to Retté, and already, one of Grandmother's birds had been killed.

The more Rabbit thought about it, the more he wondered if it had been no chance the peddler had visited Retté. He should tell the chief. He need not mention the thrush, but Obetere should know that there was a strange lowlander in the village twisting the heart of a weaker kinsman. Obetere would not take seriously a warning from old Rabbit, but maybe later he would watch, and see something that would drive him to action.

Retté emerged from the wood, the bow and arrow in one hand, the other concealing his tiny kill. Rabbit pulled aside the flap on the lodge. He would have to talk to the chief later, he did not want to leave Retté alone with the stranger. He ducked inside.

"First kill," Retté said, laying the tiny bird gently on the ground before the peddler. It was so small the arrow had nearly severed it in half. Its chest was missing as if a cat or raccoon had taken a single bite before being frightened away. Retté arranged it on the ground on its stomach, its head limp in line, as near a semblance of life as could be made.

The peddler smiled brightly, his eyes glowing. "A very fair trade," he said. He scooped up the bird in one hand and stuffed it whole into his mouth. One tiny claw projected from his lips while he worked his jaw around the mouthful. Rabbit heard bones crunch. The peddler watched the expression of horror on Retté’s face, and smiled. With a wink, he pursed his lips and sucked the claw into his mouth. A few more crunching chews, and he swallowed and sighed.

"I wish you good hunting," he said. He stood up and, slipping past them, he ducked out of the lodge.