“Curse your mother, and her whole tribe – without that core we’ll be worse than useless up at the hunting lake”. Raven’s Wing’s father was as angry as his son had ever seen him. He’d already broken two of his best arrow shafts in rage. “I just don’t understand how I dropped it. Sure we had to show those Black Wolf men a clean pair of heels – we shouldn’t have been creeping up on them like we did – but the core was in my waist pouch, and that had the best horse sinew ties that your mother could twist”. Raven’s Wing remembered his mother peeling and cutting the sinews off the bloody horse’s leg bone last winter. That had been a good kill, a horse had meat, hooves for glue, hide and hair, bone and sinew – nothing was wasted. At this rate though, he’d be going back east with his father empty handed. His father stormed off still raging.
“Just my luck” he thought, but he understood why his father was so angry. The precious core was of flint, searched out from the chalky soil near his family’s winter camp, miles away back where the sun rose. From this core, his father would strike off all the blades he’d need for their hunting trip. Tiny flakes which, set together in a wooden shaft, made a killing arrow that would fell a deer in full flight, or long thin blades for knives to cut up the skin with, or rounded scrapers that fitted neatly into your hand, for scraping the fat and flesh off the skin. Flint was a magical thing and his father was the very best flint worker in their group. He knew exactly where to strike the honey-coloured rock to split off exactly the blade he wanted. Raven’s Wing had watched him do it ever since he could remember, and this winter his father had helped him prepare his own set of flint tipped and barbed arrows, ready for their long journey west to hunt at the Tarn.
They’d seen the Black Wolf group of hunters down in the valley and stupidly, they’d crept up to find out what they’d been hunting and see if they could help themselves to anything going. It had been a hard winter and the journey had already been a bad-tempered one, with not much game to feed their hungry bellies. They had just got a little too reckless for their own good. The upshot was that they’d been spotted and not surprisingly, chased off by some very angry hunters. Raven’s Wing had never met his mother’s clan, but he recognized the dark hair that he’d got from his mother, several of the group had it, among them a tall girl who’d been yelling high and loud and who chucked a lump of wood at him that gave him a hefty clout on the back of the head that had made him run like a deer.
As they’d run, his father had dropped the bag with the big flint core he’d carried with him. Now all he would be able to use were the dark, coarse chert rock that they knew could be found near to the Tarn. The chert made useful enough blades, but they never had the magic quality that the flint had. True Arrow often used to say that the flint arrows sang as they flew, while chert was silent and dull.
With his father off who knows where, the rest of the group had settled down at one of their old stopping places where a stream tumbled down off the hillside. The woodland had been burned away from the stream’s edge by another hunting group, and there was always a chance that they might surprise a stray deer coming down as the light fell, for a drink. They quickly set up their camp, got a fire lit and divided up what ration they had of dried meat, pounded up with dried berries, that their women had prepared for them for the journey.
Raven’s Wing was on his first journey to the Tarn. Eight summers had passed since he was born, and now his father had decided that he was big enough to be useful. He’d often heard stories of the Tarn. It was a great lake high up in the hills, placed there by the hunter gods, right on the edge of the woodland. All kinds of grazing animals gathered there in the summer to feed off the sweet pasture above the trees. With water so scarce in the upland, great herds would come to the Tarn at dawn and dusk to drink and here, skillful hunters could catch all the game they needed, red and roe deer, great oxen, wild boar and horses. The Tarn was also full of fish and there were water birds for eggs and meat. He knew they’d camp above the water’s edge on a little piece of raised ground. They’d light their fires, set up their tents and start making hunting equipment in earnest. He’d also heard about Wolf Cave. It overlooked a narrow piece of dry land beside the lake and animals coming to drink were funneled straight past it. There’d been a fight over it last summer apparently, but older, wiser men had stopped all that and now the clans who made it as far as the Tarn, shared the cave, sending only their best hunters to use it.
Raven’s Wing would not be doing much hunting. His job would be tending the fires, gathering wood and helping to cut up the kill once it had been jointed and brought back to the main camp. This evening, he was sent off up the stream to collect a skin full of the sweet spring water the group knew could be got gushing out of the hillside in amongst the trees. Over many years of passing through this spot, the family group had come to believe that the spring’s water gave them extra strength for the final few miles of their journey up through the hills to the Tarn and would set them up ready and strong for the hunting.
Raven’s Wing set off as directed up the right-hand bank of the stream. The woodland here was different to their eastern camp site. There the trees were heavy and dark, here there was birch with its silvery bark and delicate leaves, and lots of precious hazel trees whose nuts, once roasted would see them through the darkest days of winter. The evening sunlight filtered down through the leaves and Raven’s Wing felt like he was swimming through a pale green pool of water. He followed a faint deer track, noting the slots made by the hooves of roe deer. He also kept a sharp eye out for any signs of wild boar. His older brother had been killed four summers ago by a boar gone mad with being speared. It had charged him and broken his back before anyone could stop it. They’d left him there with the pig’s best joint of meat and his wooden spear. By now the birds and the wolves would have done their work and he would have gone back to the soil.
Today, Raven’s Wing saw no sign of his brother’s killer and he walked on quickly and silently giving thanks to his brother’s spirit for protecting him. Soon he began to notice the sound of the spring up ahead of him, the stream nearby suddenly seemed to become quiet, and there it was, a thin, high, splashing noise spilling through the trees along the steep bank side. Just one more scramble and Raven’s Wing was standing in front of the spring. The water looked so sweet and clean he knelt down and stuck his head right under it. Just as he was tasting the first cool mouthful however, a whole load of stars burst before his eyes and next thing he knew he was face down in the mud with someone’s heel on the back of his neck.
“How dare you foul the water of this precious place. Don’t you know any better you stupid little grub?”. Raven’s Wing squirmed and growled – he recognized the voice immediately, it was the girl from the Black Wolf clan. He got ready for a beating, but the pressure eased a tiny bit and he was able to twist round and gasp and pull faces at his attacker. The girl took one look and then burst out laughing. “Why you’re nothing but a scrawny cub, get up you ugly toad and learn a lesson”. Raven’s Wing did as he was told – the girl was bigger and stronger than him and his head still hurt from that lump of wood she’d thrown. “This spring is a special place for all the hunters who come through here on their way to the Tarn – do you understand?” Raven’s Wing nodded miserably. “The water has power, it helps our arrows fly true and brings us the strongest deer and oxen. This means that hunters must treat it with respect and not foul it by sticking their ugly faces into it. Do you understand?” Raven’s Wing kept nodding.
The girl stopped and squinted at him for a few seconds, Raven’s Wing wondered what other punishment she had lined up. “Where’d you get that dark hair from, boy?” she suddenly asked. Raven’s Wing felt relief flooding through his body. “My mother” he said through gritted teeth , “of your clan she was and so I have your dark hair, I’m named for it, Raven’s Wing”. The girl nodded thoughtfully – “You ran so fast, we didn’t see, but my father picked up a bag with a flint core in and said he thought he knew your clan from the look of it.” Raven’s Wing gasped. She must have known only too well what a disaster it was for one of the hunting group to lose their source of flint. In spite of his group’s foolishness earlier in the day, she obviously took pity on him standing there, his black hair wet and his face all muddy. “I expect you want it back don’t you” she said, looking stern and reaching into her knapsack. Raven’s Wing silently held out his hands and she placed the precious golden flint in them. “There now, run back and say you met a spirit by the spring, who blessed you and the hunt, your clan will treat you with more respect than you deserve toad boy!” and with that she whirled round and sprinted away, making no more sound than a squirrel.
Raven’s Wing stared after her, then looked down at the rock in his hand. It was still warm from being in the girl’s knapsack so he knew she was real, not a spirit. He carefully stowed the core away in his own knapsack and then knelt back down by the chuckling spring and filled the skin bag full to the top with the pure water.
Back at the camp his father had returned. “Now boy” he called “give us some of that good water, let’s see if it will bring us better luck tomorrow and…” he stopped in mid shout when he saw what Raven’s Wing held out to him. “And what sort of magic is this then child? “he muttered, then a broad smile spread across his face. “By the heavens, look here, it’s my flint come back from who knows where. Thank you my son, you and the spring have blessed our clan this day”. His father knew better than to ask how his son had come by the flint, that would show no respect to the luck he’d brought with him. The group settled down under the stars that night with light hearts, and none lighter than Raven’s Wing. Now there’d be meat aplenty for the clan and the dark winter wouldn’t seem quite as dark this time around. And that night he dreamed about the dark haired girl, and knew in his heart that one day he’d see her again.