“I can not.” The woman declared, shaking her head, slick red locks swirling like ethereal worms.
“Can not, or will not?” The shaman pressed, narrowing his dark, grey eyes, which shimmered like boiling water, full up with the light of the midday sun.
“I will not.”
“It is my right, as it is your duty, Sephia.”
“If you will bare no child of mine, your own shall the human form eschew.”
“Spare me this trial, I beseech you. Mercy begets mercy.”
“You shall beget only seals.”
She shrunk away from the shaman, though she knew he needed no proximity to weave a death-gealdor. She had seen it. The shaman had demanded the hand of the daughter of Low-Frost, the latter refusing, whereupon the shaman had informed him that the spirits would be most displeased and would surely punish him for his insolent selfishness. Low-Frost had collapsed three days later, directly following his third meal of the day. Foam about his mouth. Eyes bulged in terror. His daughter, Dancing Willow, was convinced it was the work of angry spirits and consequently pledged herself to the shaman the following day.
Sephia braced herself against the wall as the mystic took a step forward, his attendants and Dancing Willow watching with nervous anticipation from the middle of the room.
“All your line shall be contorted by the high-hain. All your line shall be seals.”
With that, he brushed passed teary-eyed Sephia and passed into the outer bright, his entourage swiftly following.
The pale man appeared at the village without explanation; his manifestation so foreign and his appearance so sudden that many of the villagers believed he was not of the world, but of the spirit plane that lay beyond the veil of the High Mist and the edge of the Great Waters. Despite his peculiarity, the outlander was so courteous and fluent in the native tongue that the villagers could not but welcome him.
Upon his second day at the village his counsel was sought by a middle aged man with a braided beard and a dour expression.
“Outlander, I have heard you hail from the south; it is said the southerners are versed in the healing arts. Is this so?”
The pale man smiled faintly and adjusted himself upon the rune stone he had taken for a chair and cast his gaze to the south, where the hilly land flattened out and was swallowed up by great, tangled forests that gleamed white with caked-on snow.
“Then your aid I need. The moment is dire.”
“Dire, sir? Explain.”
“Its my daughter; afflicted she were and in a sorry state.”
“Aye, and by no ordinary ague, but a spiritual sickness. A curse.”
“Wherefore this fantastical malady?”
“The girl has refused to bare the child of Singing-Thorn, our shaman, as is his right. For this denial, the spirits have castigated the poor child and her womb swells with their fervor.”
“Grave indeed. I shall go forthwith, if you would but lead me aright.”
The man nodded, paused and realized he had not made proper greetings.
“Your name, kind stranger?”
The pale man smiled broadly, “Dren. Drake Dren.”
“I am High-Stone.”
“Well met, sir. Let us make of earth a drum and beat a hasty tune.”
With that the two men left off and in short order made way to a small hut covered with a leather tarp that issued forth small puffs of white smoke; to the outlander, the construct looked akin to a tiny volcano made of sticks. The men passed within, whereupon High-Stone gestured to a young woman who lay upon a cot, flush and breathing irregularly and swaddled in blankets. Though she appeared to Drake as somewhat ill, there was no outward sign of injury.
“This is my daughter, Sephia.”
“Quite a departure from the usual nomenclature.”
“Her mother was from southery clime. Same as you.”
“Please, tend to her. I expect not miracles, but the spirits are capricious.”
Drake nodded and knelt upon a rough-sewn rug next to the cot. The woman opened her eyes and withdrew from the man.
“Who is this?”
“Fear not, little one, he’s an outlander, from the south. A healer. He’s here to help.”
“There can be no help. My children shall be seals.”
Drake arched a brow and turned to make a inquiry to his host only to witness High-Stone exiting the hut, muttering, “I have errands I must attend to.” Drake refocused his attention upon the shivering body of the terrified young woman before him, reached out and gently braced her forearm.
“Calm yourself, woman and explain. Wherefore this talk of seals?”
“The shaman… has cursed me.”
“I refused to bare his child.”
“Of that your father has conveyed all.”
The woman looked away as Dren furrowed his brows momentarily, resuming a open and amiable countenance when she returned her gaze.
“You are soul-sick. But despair not, I shall work a charm to remove the gealdor and banish the spirits.”
“Impossible! I thank you for the pains, outlander, but there is nothing to be done. The shaman’s gealdory is too powerful to be overcome by one uninitiated in the mysteries of the hain.”
“Who told you I was uninitiated? I shall show you the falsity of those words and swiftly. Let us weave the charm. But first, I need of you a little of your knowing. And so, a personal question—I disdain such prying, but know, it is imperative—whence last did you lay with a man?”
The young woman blushed and pulled the blankets more tightly around her shivering frame.
“I see. Tell me this also, what and when did last you eat?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
He did not answer and felt her head, then withdrew, sitting upon his haunches and gazing at the ground with his keen, gold-green eyes.
“Drink water plentifully. Rest and exert yourself not. Now, I must go; but I shall return shortly. Do as I have bide and leave the rest to me.”
“I shall. Thank you, traveler.”
The pale, keen-eyed man then bowed cordially and left Sephia to her travails. Later she rose and drank some water and laid back down and slept until he returned, bearing a strange concoction. He asked her to drink it and she did so without hesitation; if her father trusted him, so too would she. With that Dren informed her to rest again and that he would return once more when his charm was done.
Days passed and with the setting of every sun, Sephia felt a little better. The swelling in her stomach had gone away completely and her fever had subsided. On the second day word began to spread throughout the village; murmurs of a challenger to the shaman’s dominion, one who sought to break his gealdor. On the third day Sephia was feeling good enough to get up and feed her goats, even though her father had seen to them but several hours before, and as she did so she heard the voices of two young men from the village speaking a couple yards away.
“Know you this outlander, Rough-Stone?”
Rough-Stone shook his shaggy, braided locks, “I know him not, but saw him whence he’d come. He’d strange eyes, what looked gold beneath the sphere’s turning.”
Sephia nodded to herself; his eyes were strange. Every villager knew that the eyes were portals to the soul, which was, they concluded, but further proof of his sorcerous potency.
On the fourth day, Drake returned, a broad smile adorning his sharp, corvine face and a odd contraption clutched in his left hand as he greeted the young woman beside her goats.
“Stranger! The charm has freed me from the spell! See, see,” she grabbed his free hand and pressed it to her belly.
“Your charm has removed the seal!”
He held up the little contraption, “Indeed. I captured the spirits in this box where even now they reside.” A little crowd began to gather, tittering with excitement and curiosity.
“If you can remove seals, you are stronger than the shaman, for the art evades him.”
The crowd swelled and moved forth to better inspect the stranger. Someone muttered, “He broke the shaman’s gealdor; such a thing is not possible!”
In short order the shaman himself appeared, whereupon the crowd made way as he strode confidently and furiously up to Sephia and her newfound friend.
“I see your baleful machinations! Begone, outlander; you have no business here.”
“I am afraid you are mistaken. My business with you closely resides. See here this box?”
“Do you know its contents?”
“It contains the spirits you summoned for dear Sephia.”
A beleaguered look passed over what little of the mystic’s face was visible behind his gruesome mask of bone.
“That is not possible.”
“Oh, believe you not your own professions?”
“That is not what I meant! The spirits cannot be commanded.”
“Yet you have commanded them.”
“So they can be commanded.”
“Only by one who has knowledge of the other side. What would a outlander such as you know of it?”
“More than you, I wager.”
The shaman gave a booming laugh.
“Prove it then; open the box.”
A crooked smiled played up the side of the pale man’s face.
“If I open the box, the spirits will be freed. Do you wish to birth a seal?”
The crowd chittered. Someone spoke up with nervous agitation, “He’s right; what if the spirits possess one of us?!” A old man declared suddenly, “He must not open the box!” Swiftly the crowd followed suit, urging Dren to keep the contraption closed and chiding the shaman for his recklessness in summoning the spirits to begin with. Their concern became so intense that Drake threw up his free hand in entreaty and spoke with sudden convivial vivacity.
“Fear not, dear people, I shall not open the box unless your leader commands it.”
They looked to the shaman with fearful expectation; the shaman sighed.
The throng breathed a sigh of relief as the outlander pocketed the box triumphantly. The shaman gave his opponent a poisonous glare, then, slump-shouldered, retreated to his lodge with his retinue.
The following day, High-Stone returned from his errand with the neighboring tribe and thanked the outlander for freeing his daughter from the spirits of the otherworld they called ‘Coribahn.’ He offered her hand, but Dren politely declined.
In the days that followed, the villagers increasingly turned to the outlander for advice and protection, some dubbing him ‘The Spirit Cage,’ yet others, ‘The Crow of Coribahn.’
Within the month, he had the run of the village.