The Might of a Shaman
by J. M. Williams
Sharu had been forced to watch as many from her tribe were slaughtered. The Red Scar warriors had dragged out the strongest men and women, putting them to the spear. Others they had bound with vines, preparing the slaves for travel. Then they burned the huts to reiterate and emphasize their threat: Leave our valley and never return. The rest of Sharu’s people lay broken in the cold winter night, weeping.
Guilt and shame imprisoned her words when the others rose to question her. She was the tribe’s shaman, why had she not protected them? And why had the spirits withheld their strength at that crucial moment?
Sharu had performed the rituals, the ones she had learned as a girl, the ones that were supposed to empower her people. But she had felt nothing while doing it; she had only been repeating the same patterns at the same times of the year.
Sharu remained alongside the smoldering corpse of her hut, long after the rest of her people began their hard trek out of the valley. They would flee as far from the Red Scars as they could. Sharu remained, watching the bones of her home turn to ash, seeing the place where she had laid her head at night disappear into the ground.
That place had not been hers alone. She remembered the face of Alat — her mate and the father of her child — who had lain beside her just the night before. A tear fell down her red, chilblained cheek. Sharu’s tribe had dragged child away to relartive safety. Alat had been taken by the Red Scars as a slave. Sharu would take him back.
She gathered her things and set about the ritual. She would beg the spirits once more to aid her. She would demand they give her vengeance. She had never asked much of the spirits before. Her people had long been satisfied in following the erratic moods of the spirits, wherever they had taken them. But these moods had never proved as vile or neglectful as this. It was her duty as shaman to restore the bond between her people and the spirits.
Sharu had been chosen to be the new shaman of her tribe by the great Sorcerer himself, the highest spiritual advisor for all the tribes in the valley. From the permanent station of his hilltop cave, he advised the lesser mystics on matters beyond their abilities. When the old shaman of Sharu’s tribe had fallen gravely ill, her fate certain, the Sorcerer had come to their camp and picked out a promising young girl from amongst the tribe’s children. It had never been Sharu’s choice. And so she had never felt inspired towards her work.
It was Alat who had kept her focused on her duties, but now he was gone. In some ways, she felt he knew more about the spirits than she did. He had a keen sense of premonition — often uncanny — and she wondered if he knew she was coming for him, if he was comforted by the thought.
For a moment, Sharu considered seeking the Sorcerer’s aid in her appeal to the great spirits. A voice in her mind suggested, ever so softly, that she was not up to the task. Of course, the Sorcerer’s bond with the spirits was the strongest of all people. He could garner their support against the Red Scar scourge. Certainly the spirits would not abet those ingrate, interloper cannibals over her servile people. Certainly, their neglect must simply be the result of Sharu’s own.
But the Sorcerer never took sides in the conflicts of the tribes; his residence depended on the reverence of all the valley’s people. Sharu knew this. She would have to manage this crisis on her own, to cleanse the valley for the sake of her daughter, for all her people. But it would be difficult without Alat’s whispers of reassurance filling her ear.
She had learned the ritual of power — a plea to the most predatory of the great spirits — at a young age, but had never needed to use it, had never intended to. She only hoped she could remember all the proper words, all the steps of the dance. This would have to be her finest act of deference.
With her stone knife, she slashed the neck of the dead crow in her hand. Then she drew a circle in the snow with its blood, the salty smell of it mixing with the smoke off the huts to form an ethereal stench. She measured every step, every turn, as she danced around the circle.
Dropping the offering into the center of the circle, she fell to her knees. “Great spirits!” she cried out. “Bear and wolf and eagle! Masters of the hunt, avatars of violence, give me your strength so that I may fight a hundred men this day...Mountain and sand and stone! Make the earth tremble under my feet so that my enemies can know their end approaches. Oh, great wind! Carry my words to my mate, so that he can know his salvation comes.”
Sharu threw her whole heart into the prayer, unlike she had ever done before. Tears of sorrow and strain filled her eyes as she danced in the circle, begging the spirits to listen, daring the shadows to watch. Smoke filled the air and made her dizzy as she twirled around, her vision blurring.
Once again she offered her prayer and, when she had finished, she felt something enter her body, forcing her face toward the sky. A gasp escaped her mouth. The stars sparkled brightly and the earth rumbled under her feet.
Exhausted, Sharu collapsed to the ground. The smoke cleared and the dawn returned to silence. She knew the spirits had answered her call, she could feel their presence, part of it filling her like a vessel. She took the dead crow into her hands, painting her face with its life. She drew the mask of the wraith, in lines of dark red, calling forth the strength of the wild. Then she took up her spear and headed for the Red Scar camp.
Traveling was not easy; several layers of snow covered the ground, but Sharu pushed on. She pictured the faces of the Red Scars in her mind; each had one side burned, done with a torch in one of their foolish rituals. They had only arrived in the valley a few years ago but had staked their claim with violence and terror. The Red Scars knew only pain; they did not understand or appreciate the true nature of spirits here. Sharu would teach them.
As she came nearer to the enemy camp, Sharu spied two Red Scar males on patrol. She did not try to hide from them but advanced on them directly. When they saw her face, the two men recoiled in fear. So they know the mark of a wraith. Sharu was surprised.
Recovering themselves, the men lashed out at Sharu with their stone knives. Releasing herself to the spirits, she let her body move on its own. She dodged the two strikes, spinning around and stabbing one of the men with her spear. She rolled over the dying man’s body, grasping his knife, which she used to subdue the other man with a few rapid blows.
Eyeing the bloodstained hand of one of the men, she remembered another small rite she had seen as a girl. It was a hunter’s ritual she had watched the old men of her village once conduct at the end of a brutal winter.
Tearing open her coat of furs, she placed the hand on her bare chest, leaving a dark red print. It was the mark of the Huntmaster, the great spirit who guided all predators. A rumbling in the earth below her marked approval. Feeling emboldened, Sharu picked up her spear and stormed into the Red Scar camp.
The ground trembled with every step she took, mountain and stone urging her to battle. An eagle cried out overhead, the eyes of the forest following Sharu, fortifying her courage. A Red Scar woman charged out of a tent, but Sharu sent her tumbling to the ground with the butt of her spear. There could be no mercy. The valley would not quiet until the Red Scars were expelled. Her daughter would never be safe unless their profanity was purged for good.
Two more males approached. Sharu hurled her spear, which impaled one of the men and forced his body to the ground. The second man stared at her frozen in shock, like a child eyeing a ghost. The tremors increased in intensity, toppling hide stands to the ground. One hit the central fire and burst into flames, and the blaze quickly spread to the surrounding tents.
Sharu smiled as the spirits wreaked their vengeance on the ignorant Red Scars. She picked up a stone axe and stalked through the camp, searching for Alat. She ripped open tent flaps, only to discover the cowering forms of Red Scar females inside; they would flee when the fighting was done.
Then she heard the sound of shouting from the far edge. She ran as swift as she could, willing the spirits to carry her forward, leaping over fallen wood and tents, bursting painlessly through fires, and even cutting down another warrior on her way. The ground shook with such force that she could barely stand — a godly laughter — but she kept moving.
As she pushed her way through a cloud of smoke, onto a path that worked its way around the far edge of tents, her eyes caught sight of Alat. He was struggling to remove his bindings as the flames grew closer. A Red Scar warrior emerged from the smoke and lunged at him.
Sharu hurled her axe, running after it as it spun through the air. It struck the warrior in his back, forcing him forward into a nearby tent. Sharu was on top of him moments later, finishing the attack. The growls of earth and flame were so loud that she could not hear his screams. She returned to her mate and cut the vines around his arms and legs. The pair escaped into the silence of the forest.
“Alat! You are safe!” Sharu cried, wrapping her arms around her man. The golden glow of the burning Red Scar camp reflected off the soft, beautiful features of his face.
“Sharu! You came for me!” Alat cried, tears filling his eyes. The couple fell to their knees and embraced each other.
“Of course, I came,” Sharu said. “It was because of me that you were taken. Because of me that our people—”
“What do you mean?” Alat asked.
“I failed you as your shaman. I never put my heart into the rituals, so the spirits abandoned us in our time of need.”
“This is not your fault, my star. You always gave your heart to our people. If the spirits rejected you for that, then our poor fate was caused only by their vanity. It is not your fault.”
The shaking of the ground ceased and Sharu’s strength began to fade. She felt herself seep into Alat’s steady arms.
“In the end, the spirits sided with us,” Alat said. “We will not have to fear the Red Scars anymore.”
“But our people have fled,” Sharu wept.
“We will bring them back. You are their shaman.”
“I am not a shaman.”
Alat pulled her away enough so that he could look into her eyes. She saw the same tenderness in them that had always rested there, before the war with the Red Scars. It was those wise and spiritual eyes that had caused her to choose him for a mate.
“Do you not see?” he said to her with a soft smile. “You crossed this valley, filled with enemies, guided only by your heart. The spirits saw this, they saw your pain and your struggle, and they shook the earth for you.
“But it was your own will that brought us out of the fire, not theirs. The spirits can scream, but they cannot hold a spear. You chose to fight for us, to risk yourself for your daughter’s future. That is the deepest power. A mother’s power. That is the true might of a shaman. You are still the mother to our people. And they will follow you anywhere.”
He was convincing; his words were always irresistible. Sharu felt her heart filling with a warmth she had no words for. If she had known the word love, she would have said it to him. But she didn’t, so she simply smiled, kissed his cheek, and smelled the sweet, smoky scent of his neck.
Alat lifted Sharu to her feet, and she let him drag her away from the rumble of flames and the screams of loss. She pictured the face of her daughter, how bright it would be when her parents returned from fates unknown. Despite her failures, she could at least be satisfied in that one success. In that small way, she felt redeemed. And she would never neglect her duties again. She had called to the spirits and they had answered her prayers; it was a debt she could never repay.
The sun rose above the forest, casting orange shadows over the dirty footprints that crossed the valley. For several days, until the return of Sharu and her people, the birds sang the terrible and blessed story, and the wind refused to disturb that sacred trail. And the Red Scar scourge never returned.
Copyright © 2017 by J. M. Williams