Monday, January 24, 2011

The Shaman Sickness

1018 AD

"He is father! He is father. Bastard made bastard."

Leif rushed into Erik's bedroom and knelt by his bedside. "Erik! Speak to me, son." He put his hand to Erik's forehead, but it was still searing with fever.

"More water, Hoegra!" Leif called out. He heard the slave girl ladling water from the basins outside.

"They come home," whispered Erik. "They come home, and father is dead."

"Who? Who comes home, Erik?" asked Leif.

"Hand," said Erik, and he weakly raised his hand off the covers and shook it. "Hand withered. He kill him, go east."

"He is still raving, my lord," said Laussa.

Leif gently kissed Erik's forehead. "Rest, Erik," he said. "You will be well soon."

He rose and slowly walked out of the room, and then leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. He was tired, so tired... So empty.

"Leif," said Laussa.

"He is dying," said Leif.

"I know," said Laussa.

"My son is dying, and I can do nothing," he said, and his voice broke. He felt Laussa's hand on his arm, and reached out for her shoulder, gripping it so hard she gasped. He tried to speak, but could not.

He heard running steps outside, pounding across the courtyard and slamming the door open. Róg's voice: "My lord!"

Leif raised his head in time to see Róg come in. His face was flushed with excitement and exertion. "My lord," he said, "there is a 'Namgis outside the gates -- a shaman, he says, with medicines and knowledge of healing. He says he heard of Erik's sickness and came to help."

Leif tried to think. Every nerve in his body screamed to let the shaman in and heal his son, but he had to think things through carefully: could it be a trap? A trick? But no, they were still on good terms with the 'Namgis.

"He came from Tall Cedar?" he asked.

"Yes," said Róg. "From Tall Cedar."

"Iron horse," Erik said wearily. "Iron horse rolls and iron bird flies and red man takes the law. Two sisters gone. Bright path up the grandfather mountain."

Leif nodded. Tall Cedar was trustworthy. He looked at Laussa, to ask her opinion, but one look at her face was enough. "Let him come and see what he can do," he said. "Offer him bread and meat and wine. I will wait here to speak with him."

Róg nodded and dashed out. Laussa started to say something, but Leif hushed her. "Do not speak of hope yet," he whispered, and held her close.

A moment later the shaman entered, wearing the typical light clothing of the 'Namgis, and carrying a leather satchel. He nodded to Leif, and Leif gave him a slight bow in return.

"Thank you for coming," said Leif in the 'Namgis language.

The shaman simply gave him a terse smile and set to work, drawing herbs from his satchel and laying them out. "Boiling water," he said shortly, and Leif nodded for Róg to go after it. When it was brought, the shaman crushed herbs into it and a rich smell filled the air.

"He dying!" cried Erik. "Who gives him his last name?"

"All leave now," said the shaman. Róg and Laussa left, but as Leif stood to go, the shaman said, "Not you. Stay."

Leif sat by Erik's bed. The two weeks of sickness had withered his son from a strong, muscular man to little more than a fleshy skeleton; his skin was flushed and hot, and his breathing difficult. Leif had seen many men die before, in battle and in sickness, and he knew Erik had held out longer than most.

At first he had prayed daily to the White Christ: every morning and every night for days and days, long past when his faith began to fail him. Now he still prayed to Christ, but also to Odin, and Heonir, and Heimdall, and Freyr, and Thor, and the waters, and the heavens... Anyone who would hear him.

The shaman came and sat by him, placing his hands on Erik's skin. His expressionless face did not change.

"He is near death," he said in 'Namgis.

"Yes," said Leif. "Do you know what his illness is? No one has been able to tell us."

The shaman nodded. "It is the shaman sickness," he said. "Very dangerous."

"The shaman sickness," said Leif. Dread crept up his spine. "What is that?"

"The black man king," whispered Erik. "Iron minds. Touch face of God."

The shaman did not look at Leif. "It is a sickness of spirit," he said. "If your son lives, he will become a shaman."

Leif struggled with questions and confusion. "Can -- can you save him?"

"No," said the shaman. "It is up to him. -- But you might help him."

"Me? How?"

The shaman looked at him; his eyes were black, but Leif thought he saw flecks of glittering white within them. The smell of the herbs was overpowering. He felt odd, and dizzy, as if the eyes were drawing him forward somehow.

"Come," said the shaman, and reached out to touch his hand.

Leif felt himself falling forward into those eyes. The blackness flecked with white became vast, like the night sky, and swallowed him. He was falling up into the heavens; and then perspective changed, and he was falling down into the sea. His mouth seemed frozen shut, his body locked into position.

The fall went on a long, long time -- an hour at least, it seemed -- and then he realized he was lying on the ground, looking up at the night. All was absolutely silent, as if his ears were muffled. Bare tree branches scratched the sky above him. He scrambled to his feet -- he felt light, strong, possessed of endless energy -- and looked around him. Here was a road through the woods, broad and clear; it seemed to him that there was a throng of people walking along it, all in the same direction, but he could not see them. Next to him, beside the path, was a huge white horse, saddled and ready, with eyes that blazed red. It was restive, stamping its feet, making the only sound in the whole forest. Its hooves seemed to echo, as if it had many legs, or was many horses. Knowledge came into his mind: This is my horse.

This is a shamanic vision, he thought. He realized he was not thinking clearly, as if he were half-awake in a dream. He struggled to focus, and the thought returned: This is my horse.

He mounted it, and without guidance from him, it began to walk down the road at a slow walk. Its footfalls continued to echo oddly; it reminded Leif of a story about Odin's horse, one he could not bring to mind. Leif could feel the silent throng around him, pressing against his horse.

After a long time, he saw ahead that the road leapt a broad stream with a great stone bridge. The throng was passing silently, invisibly over the bridge, into complete darkness on the other side. But two figures he could see clearly, facing each other at the top of the bridge's arch. One was tall, skeletal, with hollow eyes and tattered black cloak, holding a mighty sword; the other, kneeling submissively, was his son.

He screamed, but his voice was silent. He jumped from the horse, which came to a halt with a clatter of hooves on stone, and found a knife in his hand, feeling strangely heavy and real. The skeletal figure raised its sword over his son's head, and Leif leapt forward, plunging the knife deep into its chest. He felt liquid warmth on his hand, and the wraith unwound, its cloak tattering and scattering like a cloud. He fell to the stones.

There was a strange stirring in the air, and pounding of pain in his head. The darkness of the forest lifted, and he blinked in daylight. He was back in Erik's room.

He heaved himself onto his knees, realizing with dull confusion that he really was holding a knife in his hand, and it was covered with blood. He was alone in the room -- the shaman was gone. Quickly he looked over at his son, and saw blood on the sheets, blood on his son's chest --

Erik was not breathing, and there was a horrible gash in his chest. Blood on his chest, blood on the knife, blood on Leif's hands...

The knife. Leif looked at it, and saw the family crest of Tyrker on it. The very knife he had given to Tyrker when he'd banished his grandchildren. The shaman --

Leif screamed. "Róg!"

Laussa dashed in, saw the scene, Erik dead, Leif's bloody knife, and screeched.

"The shaman!" cried Leif. "He bewitched me, made me kill him with this knife! Some trickery of Tyrker's -- find Róg! The shaman must be caught -- "

But the shaman had left half an hour before, and Róg could not be found.

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