I have a lot of names. It's only prudent if you have as many dealings with the spirit world as I do. I don't tell anyone my hero-names, the ones my father gave to me in the men's lodge at the dark of the moon after my mother's death. But these days, my best-known name is Making A Hearth By The Water. Harry for short.
The hearth I've made is in the Place that Smells of Wild Onions, right on the southern tip of the Great Lake. Okay, it's not the most cosmopolitan village, especially compared to the cities down south - those of us who live here have been known to call it Stinkytown - but it's home. We're also right on the Grand Portage, the easiest connection for canoes between the Big River, which carries everything south, and the Lakes, which lead all the way to the Seaway and the Eastern Ocean. All kinds of people, and people who aren't exactly people, too, come through here on the trade routes. And not all of them the sort of folks you'd want as visitors.
It's my job to keep those folks in line.
I suppose you'd call me a spiritwalker (though, for very good and suitable reasons, that have nothing to do with a bargain I may or may not have broken, I haven't done that much actual walking in the spirit world lately.) But I know all the healing ways, and the four great medicine paths, and I'm on good terms with the little hunters and most of the other local spirits of the middle world. And I do have power when I walk the paths - so much power that the priestly council, those dried-up old whisperers in their mound-cities, decided they trusted me better far away from them, and thoroughly unaligned.
So I'm the only spiritwalker north of the Oyo who has no village and works only for hire. I'm not proud of that, but despite what the priests might tell you, the medicine paths still work when you walk them for pay. And a man's gotta eat.
Sometimes he'd rather eat at a friendlier place than his own lonely hearth, though. Tonight I was at Grandson's place - his name is Son of the Son of the Poor Man, but everybody just calls him Grandson. I don't know how old he is, but at some time in his life he walked the medicine paths, because his hearth is one of the most heavily warded places I've ever been. Anyone is welcome there, and can get a cup of hot dark tea, roast meat, and fried squash, in exchange for a handful of shell beads, as long as they keep truce. Thirteen tall poles hold up his roof; thirteen stools surround his fire; and fragrant smoke wafts from it that marks his place, to anyone from the lands of the Big River and beyond, as a place of inviolable peace.
I'd gone there for better cooking than I can manage by myself, and a chance to be alone in company. I got the first. I almost got the second, too, until Princess Water Lily sat down next to me.
Princess Water Lily isn't really a princess; her people came from down south somewhere, refugees from Anasazi or maybe even further, I don't know, and settled here a few decades ago; the name's from there. Water Lily's avocation is professional busybody. She knows everything there is to know about everything that happens around here, especially if it has to do with the medicine paths and the spirit world - or at least she tries to. She especially tries to know what I'm doing.
"Did you have a good time in Brand's Town?" I asked her.
That's a village a few days' walk from Wild Onions, to the west. I'd been there on a job - one of their most well-known singers had been complaining he was being dogged by malicious spirits. Some quick poking around had made it clear that the only problem he had was too much fondness for that "special" tobacco they've been importing up the river lately, but he hadn't wanted to listen to me any more than he'd been willing to listen to his own village's spiritwalker. And, to add injury to insult, he'd stiffed me on my pay, too, which he wouldn't've dared do her, but that's what freelancing gets you.
"You should have stuck around for the dances," she told me, smirking, and shifting so that the paint on her bosoms glinted in the firelight. I looked away. "It was wild. I'm not sure how he managed to be that consistently off the beat. It made a good story; I'll be eating out on it for a week."
I snorted. "No thanks. I prefer to stay away from people who raise drum circles when they can't tell the difference between ghosts and smoke."
"Hmm," said Water Lily, and swirled the tea around in her cup. "Speaking of people trying to take shortcuts to the spirit world, have you heard anything about this new spirit-water that's been coming down the Seaway?"
I shrugged. I'd heard of it, of course. They said it took away a man's senses, made him impervious to pain, maybe even let him see the things a Spiritwalker can see in trance. But-- "New things come through the trade lines all the time, Lily. I'm not responsible for keeping track of them all. And I don't think this one really has anything to do with the medicine ways, no matter how they're trying to sell it."
"Is that on the record?" she asked me, eyes glinting.
"No, Water Lily," I growled at her. I really don't need my current business talked about around every hearthfire in the lake country.
"Have you tried any yourself?" she continued.
"No, Water Lily," I told her. "I'm not answering your questions."
"Want to go to the Deer Lodge feast with me next quarter-moon?"
"No-- wait, Lily--" I said.
She grinned at me, and stood. "Too late," she said. "Already told me no." She tapped at one of my earbobs as she went to return the cup to Grandson. "Besides, I still won't go with a man who can't even afford matching earbobs."
I clutched at my earbob with one hand to still it, and resisted the temptation to make a rude gesture at her as she sauntered out. I know it's not exactly normal to wear two different earbobs, but I am a spiritwalker, and we're allowed our few eccentricities. I wasn't about to stop wearing either of them.
They're both beaten copper, and would be nice enough on their own, I suppose. The one in my right ear was my mother's, the only real thing I ever had of hers. It's a quincunx, symbol of the medicine paths: the four lines for the four Ways, the fifth is the center for Spirit, and the ring around them all for path of the Sun around the Middle World. Anyone who sees it knows that I'm a spiritwalker, aligned with the powers of the Sun and the Sacred Fire.
On the left ear I wear a model of a human head. It's pretty much the only thing I saved from the fire that burnt out my first mentor's house. Some people will try to tell you that it's one of the original pieces that belonged to He Who Wears Human Heads As Earrings, but practically everybody who walked the spirit paths wore human-head-earbobs for awhile there, so don't believe a word of it.
All the same-- as I was walking home from Grandson's I tapped the earbob four times, and said "Bob. Wake up."
I felt the pull in my earlobe as Bob blinked and yawned widely. (He didn't have a name when I met him, so I call him Bob. He is an earbob, after all.) "Oh, but Harry, it was such a nice nap! What is it this time?"
"Do you know anything about this new spirit-water stuff that gives you visions?" I asked him.
"Nothing much," he told me. "They've got dozens of neat ways of getting recreational visions down around Nahua country, though. Some of them come in liquid form. Have they figured out how to ship another one this far north?"
I shook my head. "This one's supposedly coming in from the Seaway. North and East."
"Oh," said Bob. "No, then, I've no idea. If you let me out for a night I could ask around, find out, maybe."
"The last time I let you out, someone talked the Cat Women's Lodge two villages over into doing their secret Spring Greening rites three weeks early. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"No, no, of course not!" Bob said. "And there would certainly be no risk of the same thing happening again, if you did let me out."
"I should hope not," I told him, "It's autumn. If they did the Spring Greening rites now, who knows what would happen." I shook my head. "I'll ask Pure Warrior the next time I see her."
Pure Warrior of the Great Water is one of the war-leaders and law-keepers for the local villages. When there's something going on that their own spirit-walkers can't handle, the tribal councils send her to ask me about it. Mostly as punishment, I think. She's no better than I at keeping her mouth shut and eyes down around her elders, and I think they're not quite convinced that the greater spirits - or the mound-priests, which sometimes come to the same thing - won't curse them for working with me. But we've struck up a sort of friendship, Pure Warrior and I, and we even trust each other. Most of the time.
Later for that, though. Right now I had another job to work on. Lady in distress, and all that.