“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 thy duty, Sephia.”
“Thou art decided?”
“If thou wilt bare no child of mine, thy own shall the human form eschew.”
“Thou shalt 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 thy line shall be contorted by the high-hain. All thy line shall be seals.”
With that, he brushed passed 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 hath heard thou haileth from the south; it is said that 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 and tangled forests that gleamed white with caked-on snow.
“Then I would ask of thee, thy assistance, for the moment is dire.”
“Dire, sir? Explain.”
“Tis my daughter, outlander, afflicted she were and in a sorry state.”
“Aye, and by no ordinary ague, for it is a spiritual sickness. A curse.”
“Wherefore this fantastical malady?”
“She hath 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.”
“That sounds very grave indeed. I shall go to her forthwith, if thou wouldst but lead me aright.”
The man nodded, paused and realized he had not made proper greetings.
“Thy 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 southern lands.”
“Please, see to her. I do not expect 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. 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 and reached out and gently braced her forearm.
“Calm thyself, woman; explain thyself. Wherefore this talk of seals?”
“The shaman… has cursed me.”
“I refused to bare his child.”
“Of that thy 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.
“Thou art soul-sick. But despair not, I can work a charm to remove the gealdor and banish the spirits.”
“That is impossible! I thank thee for thy pains, outlander, but there is nothing to be done. The shaman’s gealdory is too powerful to be overcome by one uninitiated into the mysteries of the hain.”
“Who told thee I was uninitiated? I shall show thee the falsity of thy words and swiftly. Let us weave the charm. But first, I need of thee a little of thy knowing. I must ask thee a personal question—I disdain such prying, but know thee, it is imperative—whence last didst thee 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 didst last thee eat?”
“Was it raw?”
He felt her head and then withdrew, sitting upon his haunches and gazing at the ground with his keen, gold-green eyes.
“Drink water and plentifully. Rest and exert thyself not. Now I must go; but I shall return shortly. Do as I have bide and leave the rest to me.”
“I shall. I thank thee kindly for thy pains.”
The pale, angular 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 and that he would return again once 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 other young men from the village speaking a couple yards away.
“Know ye 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 and corvine face and a odd contraption clutched in his left hand as he greeted the young woman beside her goats.
“Stranger! Thy charm hath freed me from the spell! See, see,” she grabbed his free hand and pressed it to her belly.
“Thy charm hath 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 thou canst remove seals, then thou art stronger than the shaman, for the art evades him.”
The crowd swelled and they moved forth to better inspect the stranger, someone muttering, “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 thy baleful machinations! Begone, outlander; thou hath no business here.”
“I am afraid thou art mistaken. My business with thee closely resides. See here this box?”
“Knowth thee its contents?”
“Thine spirits, 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 thee not thy own professions?”
“That is not what I meant! The spirits cannot be commanded.”
“And yet thou hath commanded them.”
“So they can be commanded.”
“Yes, but only by one who has knowledge of the other side. What would a outlander such as thee know of it?”
“More than thee.”
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. Doth thee 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 thy 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 and 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 entire village.