SLOW DOWN!” FEATHER SHOVED THE HANDLES of the two berry baskets up her arm and struggled up the steep path that would take them out of the valley. Her younger brother, Karsh, scrambled ahead and gained the ridge before she did. The dog lunged past Feather and reached the summit. He stood whining at her, but Karsh plunged on, down the other side.
Feather pushed on up the path and paused at the top to catch her breath. Karsh was already running down into the meadow be-low.
“Karsh! Wait!” He turned and looked at her, then pointed to the patch of blackber-ries to her right, across an expanse of lush meadow and near where the ground fell away into a deeper valley. Beyond the meadow and the valley, far away in the west, Feather could see the purple-blue mountains of El-gin, majestic and foreboding, capped even in summer with snow.
Karsh scowled at her, but waited, impa-tient to get to the thicket. Snap, the big mongrel, trotted around him, sniffing at the grass. Feather stood for another moment on the ridge, catching her breath. Down the hillside she could see the bushes bent under the burden of their temptingly ripe fruit. She knew that the thriving bushes concealed the remains of a stone and wooden building. It was the ruin of a hunting lodge, the far-thest outpost of the old kingdom of Elgin. Long ago King Ezander and his followers had ridden out here on horses to hunt elk and boars, or so said Alomar, the eldest of her Woban tribe.
She looked back into the lush valley behind her where her people had lived for the last three years. She and Karsh were not usually allowed to leave their tribe’s vil-lage alone. Receiving permission to go for berries without an adult was proof that the two children were growing up and that the elders saw their maturity. It would be an adventure for her and Karsh, and they would help provide food for all the Wobans. In spite of her satisfaction, Feather felt a bit uneasy in her new independence. But they had Snap with them. He would bark if any wild animals or people came about while they worked.
She shifted a basket into each hand and started down the hill toward Karsh. He waited only a few seconds, then turned and ran on.
Feather loved the summer. The days were warm, and the corn was growing high. The Wo-bans slept in brush shelters during this season, swam in their small lake, and gath-ered and preserved food for the coming cold months.
Karsh stooped to retrieve something from where Snap was snuffling in the grass, then turned toward her. “Look!”
“What is it?” Feather quickened her steps to catch up with him. She peered at the thin sheet he turned in his hands. The stiff, snowy stuff bent as he turned it.
“It’s paper.” He examined it closely, frowning. “It has runes on it.”
Feather reached for it.
“Careful,” he warned.
She held it up gingerly, careful not to tear it. “Lots of writing.” She studied the tiny black marks, wishing she understood their meaning.
“Someone dropped it,” he said.
“No one in our tribe would be so care-less.”
He nodded. “I wouldn’t think so. Be-sides, if someone in the Woban camp had this, I would know it.”
“Yes.” There were no secrets in the tribe. When a member learned something new or found an unusual object, all the Wobans shared the pleasure of discovery.
Feather bent the sheet with great care. It folded, like cloth, but made a tiny crackling sound.
“Don’t break it!”
“I won’t.” She frowned, thinking. “It’s dry.”
“It can’t have been out here long, or it would be soggy and spoiled. Remember how Alomar always says paper must be kept dry? Even the dew might ruin it.”
She held it out to him, but Karsh stepped back and said, “You carry it.”
Feather tucked it carefully into the leather pouch at her waist. “I’ll give it to Alomar when we get back.”
The berry patch spread out before them over a wide area on the slope all the way to the edge of the forest that bordered the meadow on the north. Feather handed Karsh his basket. She looked back up toward the ridge to be sure they could find their way back home with no hesitation. She could see the low place on the ridge where they had crossed it, and that calmed her.
“Come on.” Karsh began walking down the slope, and Feather followed, looking around and feeling exposed as they crossed the open hillside. The bigness of the meadow made her feel strange. She had never been this far from the village without grownups. In this larger valley, though it was not in-habited, she found herself always looking about for other people.
She pushed down her slight uneasiness. The walk from home was not so far, and there was no sign of other humans in this area—ex-cept that sheet of paper Karsh had found. She touched her leather pouch just for reas-surance. The small knife Karsh had made for her was there.
“Do you think a person dropped that thing you found?” she asked. “I mean, an outsider?”
“We would know,” Karsh said.
She nodded. It was true. The tribe’s dogs would have alerted them to the presence of a stranger, and the Wobans posted a guard constantly, so they would know if anyone ap-proached their village.
Feather stopped again and stood for several seconds, watching silently to be sure it was safe to go on, and Karsh seemed to catch her mood and waited for her. The only movements Feather saw were distant tree branches waving in a warm breeze, and a plump little brown bird flitting from a bush to a pine tree.
Snap whined, and Feather said, “Hush! Be patient.”
The dog leaped forward, yapping and nipping at the grasshoppers that whirred up from the long grass. Karsh laughed and began to run again, swinging his basket and dash-ing through the yellow and orange flowers. Feather began to run too. Summer was wonder-ful. There was plenty of food and the long days were full of activity. There were times for fun, although she also spent several hours most days helping the others preserve food and fletching the arrows that the men used for hunting.
As they neared the laden bushes, she could see the heavy crop of dark, plump ber-ries waiting to be picked.
“They’re loaded,” Karsh said.
At the edge of the berry patch, Feather called, “Wait! Remember what Rose said.”
He stopped and waited for her to catch up. “You mean about bears?”
“Yes. They’re as anxious for ripe ber-ries as we are. Be careful, and keep your eyes and ears open. There could be pigs in there too.”
Karsh squinted at her, wrinkling his face into a grimace. She knew her warnings annoyed him, but she also knew he liked pork. Karsh could hardly wait until he was old enough to go hunting with the men, but he was only eleven, still considered too young.
They began to pick along the edge of the thicket. The berries bulged with sweet goodness, and Feather couldn’t resist fill-ing her mouth and savoring the delicious taste. She looked over at Karsh and saw that he was feasting too, and purple juice was running down his chin.
They laughed at each other.
“Guess we’d better get to work,” Feather said.
She and Karsh had been brought up to be diligent workers, especially when it meant gathering food for the Wobans. They both set about filling their baskets. The sun rose high above them, and Feather reveled in its warmth on her skin. The bushes were thorny though, and she was glad for her leather leggings and the loose, long-sleeved shirt that protected her arms from scratches.
Karsh seemed not to care about the thorns. She could hear him working his way into the middle of the patch. When she peered through the bushes, she could see branches swaying as he forged a path to a new spot.
“Karsh?” she called.
She smiled. “Just checking.” Her basket was half full, and she shoved another hand-ful of berries into her mouth. There didn’t seem to be any wild beasts lurking in the middle of the berry patch. The smells of the ripe fruit and the mature grass baking in the sun made her sleepy.
“Hey!” Karsh yelled.
“What?” Her heart began to race.
“There’s something here.”
She followed his voice and crashed through the bushes, wincing as the thorns raked the backs of her hands.
“What?” she asked when she could see him. He was kneeling by a pile of large, rectangular stones, part of the foundation of the old outpost. When the adults of the tribe brought them here last year to pick berries, Hardy had told how he found a metal arrow point there once while he was out ex-ploring, and Karsh had begged to climb down into the cellar hole to look for bits of metal. Alomar’s stories of the old kingdom, when his grandfather had been loyal to King Ezander, sparked the imaginations of the youngsters, and they had all searched the ground near the berry patch for arrowheads or other signs of the kingdom that had fallen. But the adults had said there was not time to explore the cellar hole. They needed to pick berries and would have to come back another time.
“Look. There’s something down there.”
Feather came close and knelt beside him. He was looking over an edge into the depression in the ground that was the cellar of the old outpost. Some of the stones had fallen into the hole, and over the years earth had sifted into it as well, and grass grew in the bottom. The berry bushes crowded all around the rim, and the hole couldn’t be seen from outside the patch.
Feather peered down into the hole. “I don’t see anything.”
“I think I see something metal down there.”
“Near that little sprout of a bush.”
“I don’t see it.” Feather looked closer at the rocks they were leaning on as they peered over the edge. “These stones have been worked.”
Karsh’s eyes grew large as he stared at them. “You’re right. Tool marks. You can see where they were shaped. And look here, Feather!” He ran his finger over a series of grooves on one of the stones. “What do you think did this?”
“Some sort of tool that helped them split the stone, I suppose.”
Karsh stared once more into the hole below them. “Remember how Hunter said we’ll dig here someday?”
“I remember.” Digging at the site of an old building was an exciting event in the tribe. After the kingdom of Elgin suffered a great decline in its population from a wide-spread plague, it was conquered by fierce invaders. Since that time many years ago—in the time when old Alomar’s grand- father, Wobert, was young—many abandoned structures had fallen into disrepair and eventually collapsed.
Feather recalled when a group of their men had gone out hunting and found the site of an old farmhouse. They took the whole tribe to dig there. Shea and Hunter had shown them the rectangular outline in the grass, and with a little digging they had unearthed strange stones that were unnatu-rally smooth. While Rose and Weave set up camp and prepared supper, all of the others had dug in the cellar hole, under Hunter’s direction. They had found a few things to take with them, mysterious bits of metal and pottery. The people had pulled out several old brown metal containers.
“They used to keep a lot of things in them,” said Alomar, the wisest of their tribe. “Food, mostly.”
“But the metal is rotting,” Karsh said sadly, and Alomar nodded.
“Even metal doesn’t last forever, es-pecially if it’s in the dirt. But some met-als wear better than others.”
They had kept digging until all the daylight was gone, and sifted through the earth. They had found coins, and Alomar said those were a better metal than the contain-ers. Coins didn’t rot. They could be heated and flattened out and shaped. Alomar could not remember the Old Days when the kingdom was strong, but his father and grandfather had taught him much about those times, and Alomar told the Wobans the things he’d learned as a boy.
Feather had found a spoon that day. The Wobans mostly ate with wooden spoons, but this one was metal. It had a strange taste, and she didn’t like the way it clicked against her teeth if she wasn’t careful, so she rarely used it. She’d told the women they could add it to their cooking utensils, but still they called it Feather’s spoon.
And Hunter had found a small flask, not of leather or pottery, but of clear glass. The Wobans had only a few items made of glass, but Alomar assured them that in the Old Days it was common. As far as he knew, there were no glass makers in Elgin, but the people traded for it with merchants from faraway lands. “It will break if you drop it,” he said, so Hunter had wrapped it care-fully in cloth.
They had found other bits of broken glass, and Alomar warned them to be careful, as the shards might cut their hands. But the flask had somehow survived whole all those years in the dirt, and it was now one of the tribe’s prized possessions. Tansy used it to hold one of the tonics she brewed for sick people. It was no wonder Karsh was excited about being near a ruin again. Feather knew he was eager to unearth treasures of his own.
“I’m going down there,” Karsh said, looking into the hole, and Feather gasped.
“You can’t. Not by yourself. Hunter and Jem and the rest will come up here with us another day, and we’ll all dig, like we did before.”
“Yes, but I want to explore a little now. No one has disturbed this place for a long time. There might be a cave down there, or . . . or just anything at all. It was a hunting lodge, Alomar said. There might be weapons buried under the dirt.” His eyes were bright with eagerness.
Feather swallowed hard and squinted, trying again to spot something that wasn’t a rock or a plant, but she was too far away. Karsh was right. There could be anything down there. Anything you could imagine. The wonders of the Old Times might be just be-neath the surface.
She didn’t want to spoil Karsh’s adven-ture, but she knew they ought to wait for adult approval. “Wait. It might be danger-ous.”
“I’ll be careful. You and Snap stay up here, and if there’s any problem you can go for help.”
It was too late. Karsh was already over the edge and clambering down into the hole.
Feather frowned. She didn’t like this, being up top alone while her brother scram-bled deeper into the cellar. The old hunting lodge must have caved in and sunk down long ago. Or perhaps it had burned, and this was all that was left. Many, many buildings had been burned after the big sickness, she knew, to get rid of the plague.
“Here, take this!”
She leaned down toward Karsh, but couldn’t reach the item he held up to her.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. Some kind of metal tool, or a fastener, maybe. Alomar says they used to have all sorts of things to hold other things together.”
Karsh was always on the lookout for metal. Alomar was teaching him how to make things from it. Although he was a year younger than Feather’s own twelve summers, Karsh was becoming skillful at softening metal in the fire and shaping it into tools and adornments.
He threw the article up onto the verge of the hole, and she picked it up. It wasn’t like the nails they had found at the other dig, though the shape was somewhat similar. It was fatter, the end was blunt, and it had ridges curving around the length of it.
She realized suddenly that Snap was no longer with her, and she rose and looked around, but the leafy bushes were thick around her.
She listened but heard only the breeze in the laden bushes. She pushed the metal piece into her pouch and crouched by the rocks again, looking down at Karsh.
“Come out of there.”
His eyes gleamed as he looked up at her. “What if there’s a big cave below this hole? There could be tools down there. Or dishes.”
“Come up here now! We’re supposed to be picking berries. It’s not safe for you to be down there alone!”
Karsh hesitated, then shrugged. “All right.” He walked toward her, dragging his feet and searching the ground, as always. He bent to pick up something. “Hey, Feather!”
She was getting impatient. “What now?”
Suddenly Snap began to bark, and she caught her breath. He was quite a distance away. Perhaps he was after a mouse or a jackrabbit.
“You hear that?” She asked Karsh. “Snap’s run off to chase something.”
“Call him back,” said Karsh.
She sighed and stood up. “All right, but you get out of that hole!”
She pushed through the thicket again. It was farther to the edge than she had re-alized. She stopped, listening for the dog.
“Snap!” she yelled again.
Suddenly, hands grabbed her from behind and pulled her off her feet. Feather twisted and screamed, but a large, strong hand clamped over her mouth, and the scream was just a terrified squawk.
A smell hit her, worse than the bear Hunter had killed two autumns ago. She struggled and kicked, writhing in her cap-tor’s arms.
She heard a laugh from a few feet away, and Feather stopped fighting. There were at least two of them. She had no chance. But perhaps they didn’t know about Karsh. Was he still down in the cellar hole, or had he climbed up over the edge? Did he even know she was in trouble?
She was pushed roughly through the thicket. The thorns tore at her. They reached the edge of the berry patch, and she was thrown to the ground in the tall meadow grass. She looked up. A large, dirty man was standing over her.
“A bear cub after the berries!” He ran the words together in his deep voice. This was the man who had caught her, Feather re-alized.
A second man laughed and nodded and pulled a cord from his pouch. He seized her hands and jerked them up in front of her. “Be still!”
As he bound her wrists together, she sneaked a look at the first man. He wore leggings of doeskin and a filthy gray tunic of woven fibers. A short bow and a quiver of arrows were slung over his shoulder, and a metal blade with a handle of horn was thrust through the braided vine circling his waist. Around his neck was a cord that bore gray clay beads painted with white designs. At the front of the necklace snared in a slit in the leather thong hung a tuft of orange fur.
Feather was shaking. She had never seen a Blen up close, but the trader who was Friend to all tribes had brought beads like that in his pack last summer and told them he got them from the Blens.
How could she have been so stupid as to stop keeping watch and let the dog wander away? Where was Snap anyway? She pulled in a deep breath. There was no way to reach her small knife now. Could she leap up and run away with her hands tied together so tightly that the cord bit into her skin? Just as she weighed the possibility, the man who had captured her pulled her to her feet. He jerked his head and motioned down the slope, away from the berry patch, toward the bottom of this new valley that had seemed so peaceful an hour ago.
Feather gulped air. She was a prisoner of the Blens, the worst and most feared en-emy of the Wobans. They were a wandering tribe, and bands of Blens raided wherever they found opportunity. They didn’t grow their own food; they stole it. But they had never come this close to the Wobans’ vil-lage. The Woban elders had chosen the spot carefully for its seclusion, and the trader had given his word that he would tell no one of its location. They had lived here in peace for three years now and had begun to feel secure at last. Jem and the others who were responsible for the tribe’s safety had rejoiced that they hadn’t seen any Blens this year in their wanderings. Everyone hoped the Blens would never discover their new home and attack them.
The tribe would be even more careful, Feather thought, now that they had lost one of their precious youngsters. The Wobans cherished their children.
She wondered what Karsh was doing. Did he even know her plight? At least he hadn’t charged out of the bushes in a misguided at-tempt to rescue her. She was sure he would be marching along with her now if he had.
There seemed to be only the two men. She wondered if a larger band was camped nearby. As they moved farther from the berry patch, she took one swift look over her shoulder, and her captor cuffed her on the back of the head.
“Where’s my dog?” she gasped.
The other man looked back at her captor and laughed. The man pulling her along be-side him touched her shoulder, then jerked his head to one side. Feather twisted her neck and looked. Snap lay motionless in the long grass. One leg was certainly broken, and the dog’s head was bleeding.
She felt sick, and her knees buckled. The smelly man who had captured her seized her before she hit the ground and slung her over his shoulder.