I’m cheating a little, because I wrote this story a few years ago, and I rediscovered it this morning in an editing fit. It is very long, so please pass by if you do not have time to read it, or find it irksome; but it is here because it is one of my favourites, and it ventures into a genre where I do not often stray.
In the Kingdom of the North Wind where the mountains meet the sky there is a valley, which is no more than a tendril of poor pasture pointing towards heaven like a tremulous finger. Few will ever travel this way, but those who do will find within the valley basin where the trail ends a village, a cluster of dwellings made from stone and straw that huddle in a frightened circle. Sparse fields of grain lie thinly on the stony dust; cattle and sheep accustomed to starvation’s edge graze where they may. You who discover this place should feel no guilt if you shudder and quickly pass, for here can there be no rest for human life.
Yet if you pause long enough to turn your eyes to the east of the valley and towards the highest peaks you may see against the grey mist of the mountains a hill which stands apart, and a house upon it. When the sun sets on a summer evening; and when at dusk a wolf gives tongue in mournful echo, the windows of the house glow red as blood. No birds sing. It is a lonely house, in a lonely place. And no-one living is there.
By a cracked untended path you may reach it, this house: where sometimes in a night of dreams you come, brushing through weeds that reach for you, that cling and wrap themselves about you, grasping the great iron ring upon that dark, dark door and turning the cold iron latch – and I may be waiting there to greet you on those nights. For I am darker than all nights – I am darkness itself.
Who am I? To my chosen few I am salvation, the one true promise of eternal life: to you I am a visitation, she who stands behind you at your passing – she who waits. Where peace can be found in a bite, I am teeth: where solace waits at the end of a slash or a cut, I am knife. Where nemesis is a gun, mine is the bullet. I will take you to Him when there is no returning. Fear me, for I am death.
Who is He?
To me He is a condor in the evening sky, a soaring majesty, a noble hawk. To me He is at once love, and the synthesis of love: spiritual and final, creation and oblivion. When I am with Him He is all that I am, all that I aspire to be: as He leaves me, my life leaves with Him, and I am as nothing – sand – until He returns.
Once as a child I trod that path; once, a very long time ago. In days when I was too small to reach the iron ring but the door of the house was opened to me, and the north wind bore me through. I came although all in my village forbade me: I came seeking a way to leave my hunger, to turn my back upon fear. I was six years old and fair, the first evening I sat before His table and I had never seen food such as the food He gave to me that night, nor heard spoken wisdom as wise as His.
Within these walls I stayed: who would not? Within these walls I fed, slept and grew to be a woman: tall with flaxen locks and beauty for no-one’s eyes but His. Yet He did not come to me, though so often I would have welcomed Him. There were long, solitary days when He was far off, long nights alone listening to the wind for a hint of His approach, desperate for a word from His lips, a smile or a kindness. But there was always food upon the table, always wine to drink, a fresh, clean bed to sleep upon, and then, when He would return, hours upon hours of talking, so the night stretched out forever before us.
Ah, such times!
It was the winter of my eighteenth year, was it not? Aye me, my memory plays such tricks upon me now! The snows had come early. There were logs piled high upon the hearth and a fierce fire in the grate that night.
He had returned upon the blizzard’s wing, an apparition first, then a man. As always, I knew He was with me long before I saw His noble face, heard His voice like honey in my ears. We were seated before the flames, deep in thoughts of times, and I may have been close to sleep when He bore me up as He had never done, took me to His breast as He had never done.
Upon that night He gave me life: eternal life.
Kinorvich probed the embers with a stick, as though his moody eye might read some message from the sparks.
“There were two more on the moor today.” He said.
“Three last week.” Cabal muttered through yellowed moustaches. “One of my best breed ewes among ‘em. It would be better if all the meat was taken, or at least if we could bring home what’s left.”
“You’ll not bring bewitched flesh to my door!” Ursa’s voice, keen as scythe on stone, warned him. “I’ll not have death enter here until its time.” For emphasis she beat a wooden paddle into the pot of cornmeal that hung above the fire. “It’s spoiled meat, Cabal.”
Rochar grunted his agreement. “Bled dry.” He said.
Calchis contented himself with a silent nod.
There were four men around Ursa’s cooking fire: Kirnovitch who was her husband and three others who counted themselves the elders of the village. They were no more strangers to Kirnovitch’s poor hovel than they were to this theme, for every week they gathered here to tell the same dark tale of carcasses left ravaged for the wolves upon the mountain slopes. Were they to acknowledge the truth they might concede those that were slaughtered were semi-wild creatures, strays that had wandered from the flock to eke out their own existence: but these were poor men, and every kill was counted as one of their own.
“The sacrifices make no difference. Something must be done.” Calchis said (as he had said each week of each year since any there could remember).
“We could stop the sacrifices?” Kirnovich suggested (as he had suggested countless times).
“Don’t you! Don’t you!” Ursa warned. “She will come! She will and she’ll have us all!”
And usually the conversation would end there, because that threat held them in terror. This day, though, maybe because of the onset of winter, or maybe because the harvest had been blighted and stores of corn were low, it continued.
Cabal said: “Has anyone ever seen her?”
The gathering fell to silence. After a while, Rochar, whose voice lisped through teeth jagged as the rocks on the fell, murmured: “Don’t no-one ever see her. She comes by night – as demons come.”
But Cabal was not to be deterred: not this time. “We speak of Yelena as if she were some supernatural thing, still among us. Why? I remember the day she left us and I tell you, she died. She just wandered up into the hills and didn’t come back.”
“She was a beautiful child.” Ursa reflected: “Always sad.”
“There were those saw her enter the house.” Kirnovitch remembered. “There are those say they saw the witchery come upon her. She was warned. Oh, she was warned!”
“Yelena’s dead.” Cabal affirmed. These killings – they’re some beast, something we don’t see, but lives up there.”
“With teeth that cut so?” Rochar asked. “Those bites are made by no beast, Cabal.”
Once more, silence: four men and one woman studying the fire. At last it was Kirnovitch who spoke. “We could send for the Shaman.” He said.
Only when the snows lifted from the high pass, only with the springtime, when the first buds were appearing and the grass was spattered with harebells would he come; unremarkable at first, a hunched figure who bore a burden upon his shoulders and a festoon of mysterious sticks, stones and bags about his waist. He was smaller, he was more care-worn than the common man and there was a dark scent of nature about him which was neither unpleasant nor enticing, but made the villagers step aside, for they were at once both curious and afraid.
His tunic of thick hide was stiff, as though badly cured. Beneath it a jerkin of un-dyed wool, woven in light and dark thread so it had the appearance of rough chain-mail. His leggings were of a woollen cloth too and bound to his calves by thongs of cow-hide. There were no shoes upon his feet; these so hardened that his toes resembled walnuts and his nails were black. The whole untidy assemblage of skins and cloth was topped by a head somewhat larger than a normal man’s, a head framed by bleach-white hair which fell untended about his shoulders. His face? Well, by the constant attention of the elements this was blackened too, a midnight only brightened by two tiny stars of eyes – and as you moved these stars would follow you.
Without a word he sat down on the hard compound of the village square while the people gathered around him. He took the food they brought him to eat, picking through the best they had with his blunt fingers, snuffling and grunting like a hog. They brought him their best mead to drink, which he quaffed heartily through thick lips. Then, in the middle of the village in the middle of the afternoon he fell into a deep, snore-punctuated sleep.
That night it threatened rain. For hours the villagers had prowled and sniffed about the Shaman’s slumbering heap like hungry dogs, never venturing closer than an arms-length, never daring to reach out.
“Will we invite him inside?” Kirnovitch wondered. Ursa and he sat eating their meal by the doorway of their stone hut, where Cabal joined them.
“Better not to.” Was Cabal’s opinion. “If he wished it he would ask.”
“The rains are cold this early in the season.” Ursa observed. “He is a great age, I think. Should he die that will bring another curse upon us.”
“He is a Shaman.” Cabal reminded her.
“He is still mortal.” Ursa said.
So Cabal and Kirnovitch made a shelter of a goatskin, which they stitched onto a frame of sticks. Very carefully they arranged this canopy over the Shaman’s inert form. He did not stir.
Next morning the whole village was awakened long before the dawn to a cacophony of human sound: screams of anger, curses, a banging of staves; wood on wood. Its sleepy citizens emerged from their hovels to witness their Shaman jumping as though the earth beneath his feet were aflame, flailing at the empty air with the remnants of the shelter Cabal and Kirnovitch had so thoughtfully constructed and shouting in gouts of meaningless language. A particular space above his right hand drew those pin eyes like some invisible enemy. He swiped at it viciously then unsheathed a knife from his belt as he set off in pursuit of it across the compound, yelling at the top of his dry voice. When he seemed to finally have his imaginary foe cornered at the side of Calchis’s hut he thrashed at it, swore at it, stabbed it until he was satisfied it no longer threatened him. Then he stopped, pulled his leggings to one side and urinated. At some point in this final process the Shaman seemed to become aware of the eyes that were watching him. He glared about him defiantly.
“I piss upon the spirit.” He growled. They were the first intelligible words he had spoken.
“He’s possessed!” Said Ursa, awestruck.
“He’s drunk.” Calchis said. “Better give him some more mead.”
So the Shaman slept once more, and the village was returned to peace. All morning the villagers went about their tasks, skirting around his crumpled form with the respect they might give to a corpse. The sun had slipped beyond its zenith in the sky before he woke and they fed him, still clinging to a thread of belief which hung from this faded cloth of hope.
He ate hungrily, he let pass a propensity of wind, then he rose to his feet. Without a word to anyone, he walked out of the square to a place beyond the village’s edge and stood facing the hill, staring upward toward the house that neither did nor said, but stared blankly back.
Then he took a single stone from his belt, held it up above his head and shook it three times.
Next, he took a single stick from his belt, a stick no more than a hand in length and carved with tiny symbols which he also raised to point at the house, and shook it five times.
Then he drove the stick into the ground and stamped upon it with his feet – seven times. And still the house stood as it had always stood, expressionless and empty, upon the hill.
The Shaman stepped forward, walked ten paces towards the house. Now he began a song, a song from behind closed lips in a high, keening voice – a song with words no-one, perhaps not even he could understand. But the house heard; and the house answered. It answered with a breath of chill air that ruffled the grass of the valley as it came to wrap itself about the Shaman; circling, finding out. And the Shaman took from the bag that hung from his right hip a handful of earth – earth that was little more than dust, to cast into that air: and the air took it up. The air made the earth harden, and sharpen, so each grain of soil became a shard of glass and each shard flew about the Shaman until it found its place – then it struck, piercing the old man’s flesh with not one, but a thousand barbs.
“Ay-HA!” Said the Shaman, swiping at himself irritably. “Ay-AH!”
At the last ‘AH!’ the shards dispersed, falling to the ground as soil once again. The villagers who had gathered at the edge of the compound to watch gasped in astonishment. Grunting his annoyance and bleeding not a little, their Shaman stamped back to them, wordlessly accepting another bladder of mead from Cabal’s wife with which to re-seat himself in the middle of the village, quaffing and burping by turns. The elders, Rochar, Kirnovitch, Calchis and Cabal stood watching him.
“Her name!” The Shaman demanded gruffly when he was done. He met with an uneasy silence. Hers was a name rarely spoken, and never in the open air where she might hear, where she might be invoked.
“Her name?” He repeated.
“Yelena.” Calchis muttered at last. “Her name was Yelena.” Feeling how all the eyes of the village were turned upon him, he added uneasily: “She was my daughter.”
Behind him Mutai, Calchis’s wife, stifled a sob. The Shaman rose to his feet. He shuffled across to where Calchis was standing and without ceremony grabbed the poor man’s head between his hands, squeezing as though he might draw every thought that was held secret there. For a minute, maybe more, the pair were joined so, eyes locked upon each other. Then the Shaman stepped back.
“Not ‘was’.” The Shaman growled. “’Is’. But she is no longer your daughter. She is wedded now.” He enunciated the word ‘wedded’ with such weight of meaning that it brought a gout of spittle to his mouth which he rounded and hawked onto the floor.
Mutai’s expression was incredulous: “Yelena? Alive and married?”
This news brought such light and joy to the woman’s sad head that she even contemplated a celebration – a feast. A wedding feast! Her daughter was not dead! The ludicrousness of the situation came upon her more slowly. Yelena would not return to her; the Shaman’s eye vouchsafed it.
It was up to Calchis to ask: “What is she, then?” And he immediately regretted his question, for it earned him a look of withering scorn from the Shaman.
“What is she? She is a warden, a Thresher: one who feasts on the blood of the dying, who waits at the door of death. Sometimes, when hunger is upon her she may take the living, too – for that is the bargain she has struck. That is the essence of the man or the beast she has taken to her bed.” Then perhaps Mutai’s helpless expression softened the Shaman’s old black heart, because the hard edge in his voice was missing when he added: “You should not rejoice for your daughter, woman. Her bridegroom is not of this world.”
“But she lives!” Mutai clung to the thought. “While she lives, can we not hope? Some spell, magic man; some incantation, surely, to bring her back to us?”
“Yes. In her fashion, she lives.”
“Has she grown to be beautiful?”
“Yes, in her fashion, she is. When she comes to man in the night she is beautiful….” Here the Shaman paused, as though dwelling upon some memory of his own. Then he came to himself again, and said. “Even if there were spells to bring her back to you, they were better left unwoven. I tell you again, she is no longer the daughter you knew.”
At this, the elders of the village – Rochar, Kirnovitch, Calchis and Cabal – gathered together and spoke between themselves: now they were given the truth, what should they do?
Rochar and Cabal favoured asking the Shaman to make a spell that would cast Yelena out from the house on the hill. Cabal reminded them once more of his ewe, left savaged upon the hillside. Kirnovitch listened impassively, knowing Rochar’s capacity for exaggeration and suspecting Cabal’s ewe, like all the other stock that had been taken, was a wild stray which had once borne Cabal’s brand. Calchis defended his daughter. After all, he pointed out, Yelena had never troubled them. Yes, they were wild strays, the creatures she took, not their own precious animals; and she had never come to the village. She had never attacked the place that gave her birth.
The elders went to their beds that evening undecided as to what they should do. The Shaman accepted Kirnovitch’s offer of lodging for that night. And that night, she came.
Whether it was because of the Shaman’s probing; whether it was the Shaman she sought, no-one could know.
How strange it seems to travel this path, the wind and I moving as one! And in the stillness, how small the house – the tiny womb – that was my house once! Was that woman my mother- he my father? They lie curled within their womb, asleep so deeply; husks of corn long winnowed: they will be gone so soon – so soon. And it is not they I seek.
Who was it? I move from house to house as only I can move, listening. I know he called me: I heard his summons in my earthly name and I will know that voice again, mewling in its muddy craw, sodden with mead, devoured by rabid age.
House by house: faces I knew, rapt in sleep: all who curse me, none who understand that it is by my Prince’s patronage alone that they are here: it is by my intercession they are spared. It was I, was it not, who pleaded their cause the year of His great anger, the year I wintered in His bed? ‘Lord, is it not their food we plunder; their creatures we feast upon while they barely live? If you should erase them from your land, who else would tend these cold, dead slopes?’ Yelena the cursed, who should be Yelena the blessed – but what care I for them? They are as nothing. They are dust.
All but this one – face wizened as a furrowed field, snores heavy with drink; he is something other. I would speak with him.
“Wake, old man!”
My voice is soft as the mist of a dream, yet he hears it. His eyes open. He sees me! Marvel at my beauty, old man! Ravish with those pig eyes all your wasted body cannot have! “Who brought you here? Show me the ingrate who summoned you!”
He smiles: “You did, hag! It was you who brought me!”
There are others – two others – in this hut and they waken now. I hear the sharp intake of breath; I smell the woman’s fear. She does well to fear.
“What do you want, old man?”
But he does not answer me. Though he knows that his neck would break at my single stroke, though he knows I may take his gut in my hand and twist it until he is beyond pain, he says nothing. Instead he opens his hand so I may see he holds a stone within his palm – offers it to me so I may touch it. He wants me to touch it, to take it. I might do that yet, so strong is his will…’take the stone’…
Cringing, hardly daring to open her eyes, Ursa watched as the woman – who was not real, could never be real – stretched out her arm to the Shaman. Yelena! This was Yelena, come so far from the human child. She saw long white fingers extend – as an eagle’s claw extends – to something in the Shaman’s hand.
She felt, rather than heard, the old man’s incantation as sweetly and richly as any music: saw those fingers close about something – something small. Saw both figures; recumbent, bent old man and tall, inexpressibly elegant woman in frozen stillness, their eyes only for each other.
Then, of a second, the Shaman’s hand had reached and grabbed. His grip was a vice about the woman’s wrist, tightening. He was shaking the wrist, shaking the hand, shaking the stone it held, three times.
The woman screamed: and her scream was the cry of the rabbit in the snare, the fox to her young from the hill. Her body shrank back – drawn flesh about the bones which made her, the small stone she had taken searing red between her fingers. Her robe of grey mist swirled to wrap itself about her, and she was gone.
On his feet at once, the Shaman ran from Ursa’s hut in pursuit. He ran and the black night in a cloud gathered to follow him. He ran to the stake, the stake with runic signs he had driven the previous day into the ground. He ran there and he stamped upon it five times.
Then as if upon his summons the ground opened at his feet, but still the Shaman, shouting fiendishly, ran on, chasing the grey ball of Yelena as it rushed faster than a lightning bolt towards the house on the hill. In his wake, the earth was split by a jagged fissure which opened wide enough to swallow him. He might have been running for his life, but fast as he might run the spirit that was once Yelena was faster. The door of the house on the hill slammed shut behind her. The ragged earth ceased to split. There was silence.
For a long time, it seemed, the world stood still. The villagers, huddled in the village square, staring in wonder at the crevasse; the Shaman before the house on the hill with his arms outstretched, fingers pointing to the stars. Then came the cloud.
It swept in from the east, above the mountains. In the featureless night sky there was little evidence of it at first, save for the flickers of lightning emanating from its midst. Sheep that saw its coming bleated piteously from the pastures, and as it drew closer the air itself took up the vibration, an angry bee-swarm buzz of higher, ever higher pitch. Above the house on the hill it gathered in a boiling mass, black on black, and the blue flashes of discharge from it spread like a fan across the sky. From its heart He came, a white fury in human form twenty times the height of any natural man with lightning playing about His head and arms of fire to strike down upon the Shaman. Ursa wailed her horror as the old man’s body was lifted and tossed into the air like a thing of rags: and a thing of smoking rags he fell, still upon the ground.
A bless of spring snow and the first light of morning would discover the old Shaman crumpled upon hard earth. He wakened slowly, sending reluctant nerve-pulses to each of his limbs to see if they would still move for him. Only when he was sure nothing was broken did he open his eyes: only when the pain in his head began to clear, did he raise himself to look around.
Before him the house upon the hill stood as faceless and lifeless as ever, still shaded by the mountains: behind him the path which led down to the village was much as before; the fissure had closed so only the irregular line where it had been was visible. But all about him was dust, and nothing but dust. No spring shoots, no grass, no crops – no food. There was not an animal in sight.
With a sigh, the Shaman dragged himself to his feet. Turning his back upon the house he limped down the hill towards the village.
The villagers were gathered in the square, their fear still etched in their sleepless eyes.
“She is gone.” The Shaman muttered. “Give me mead.”
Ursa mutely offered the bladder of mead and the Shaman emptied it.
“What…” Rochar asked, “has become of the land?”
“It is cursed.” The Shaman shrugged. “It was always a possibility. She is very strong, and the bridegroom still comes to her – he was stronger.” He probed his bones delicately, wincing at each new weald or bruise.
Cabal stalked forward until his face was inches from the Shaman’s own. “And the animals?” He growled. “Are they cursed too?”
“Cursed, or scared. They might return, they might not.”
“Then how do we live?” Calchis, his arm about Mutai’s heaving shoulders, shouted: “Without animals, without crops – look at this! Look what you have done!”
The Shaman rounded on Calchis, and his reply had the snap and snarl of a timber wolf.
“Why did you call him? Why? You wanted rid of a Thresher and he did as you asked. Do not blame me for the consequence! Did you think I would leave without a fight? Did you?”
Cabal stepped back, a furrow of perplexity in his brow.”We called you. ‘He’; ‘I’; what is this?”
“And has she?” Kirnovitch asked suspiciously: “Has she left?”
First to realise, Mutai sobbed. For all she saw was changing, and it was not the Shaman’s bent form that stood before her now.
They see me! They all see me – she who claims me, and her man, the one with the vile teeth, the self-important one – all of them. I rise before them from that dried husk like a bright angel. They see me and they cringe with their terror writ in tears upon their faces, their whining fear writhing from their lips!
I tell them. I speak my words to the wind; the north wind: “Did you think – did you dare to think – you would find salvation in this old snakeskin of a man? Did you think in your arrogance; in your ignorance, he would be any match for the power of my Master? He is chaff! His magic had no more potency than an innocent child’s wish!
“Foolish people! Foolish, and doomed! I will go; leave now, before the sun discovers me. Yet do not run: you cannot run for I shall always find you. Wait upon the night, the darkest night of the moon, and hear this, my promise to you who would destroy me. When that night comes I will return.”
In the Kingdom of the North Wind where the mountains meet the sky there is a ruined village, a cluster of dwellings wherein I feasted once, on a dark night of the moon. Within those walls nought but bones remain. Sparse fields of weeds lie thinly on the stony dust; cattle and sheep accustomed to starvation’s edge graze untended where they may. You who discover this place should feel no guilt if you shudder and quickly pass, for here can there be no rest for human life.
And I – where, now, do I live? In life the house upon the hill stands empty now, though in dreams you may still find it, and I will wait to welcome you. Remember always I am near. As your breath shortens with the years I am closer. But upon any night – any dark night when the North Wind blows and I am hungry a black cloud may bring me, for I am Princess of the North Wind. Know me – I am death.
© Frederick Anderson, June 2014.