I am the dream-bringer and the spell-singer. I travel far and wide, on dawn chorus and eventide. My people listen when I talk, for I walk the pathways of the soul and bring back with me the truths that they would be told. Not the hearsay, nor the everyday, but the hard-as-bone, sharp-as-teeth soul-truths. The spirits and the daemons know me and I know their words. I sing their songs too.
We travel from the ice. We few, we many, we glorious people of the Raven. Where the sacred bird flies we will follow, over ice-wind dale, to green-land hollow. We leave behind the ice and snow, set our eyes towards a gloaming horizon, and head towards trees and green fields. I have seen them in my soul-dreams. We will not die trapped in the ice like the great, hairy beasts. We will be free and we will thrive.
The story of the raven shaman is the story of my people, for I and we are of the people born. Dream-bringers and spell-singers. I cannot die while they live, and while I live I will not let them die. The great bird that flies in my dream-sleep has shown me the way. We will follow the sun, we will plant in the mother ground, and the people will survive.
The way is bitter and long. Our feet are as ghosts in the old mother, she now turned white by snow’s embrace. I miss her sweet flowers, the fruits and the trees. These are her true face. She is giving and loving.
But the way is bitter and long and we walk in death’s shadow. Some fall and do not get back up. We give their bodies to the holy bird, but we do not leave them behind. I carry them with me. I tie a bone in my hair for each of them. They will feel the sun on their bones, this I promise them. Fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers: I will carry you.
The wind bites. It eats us. It beats us down. As more of the people lie down for the final sleep there is a voice of dissent. Ashdan, big and strong, tells the people how wrong they are. We travel wide and we travel far, he says, but who is to say we travel the way to the green land beyond.
It is the way of the people that they talk, they chatter, and they raise their hands to vote. The right leader for the right time, and this time is mine. All are allowed to speak, and I sing my song-words to them.
Ashdan is powerful, I say, and can crush the mountain down. When enemies come, he is the rock where they will break. But the enemy now is snow and time. It is the quiet path, not the raging fight. Kaela, our chieftain, is the right leader for the time, the traveller of the path back to the light. She who walks fast, who dances through snow, who leads us on, who knows where to go.
Kaela leads us. Ashdan darkens like a cloud bringing a storm.
I have seen where this goes: the holy bird flies with me in my dream-sleep and I see far. I see over the mountains and I see the river of time. I fly across its shores and read our future in its ripples and turns. My people travel over cold earth, on aching legs. I travel farther and deeper. I see the green land, the pleasant land, and our people planting and reaping. I see beyond…when the people are gone, but transformed into something more.
With the final sleepers there also comes a first awakening. It is a time of joy and fear. The holy bird is near, and carries away all. They celebrate the coming of the child and drown in sorrow that it may never see life.
Here too, I have my magic.
The mother screams. She howls like the wind. The child does not want to come. Wise child, old child: why leave the warmth of your mother for the cold of the long walk? But come, come, I say to the child, come and talk with an old man and meet your mother. There is more to the world than the warm-dark; and there will be plenty of time for that with the final sleep. Your journey is beginning, and it begins in the middle of ours.
The child does not scream. His hair is thick and black. One eye is white like the snow and the other is blue like a summer sky.
He is raven-touched, I declare. He walks in two worlds. He will be shaman when I am gone.
This brings such happiness. The people have left their homes, knowing only that to stay would be to die. They do not know if they will ever reach the green land. But the birth of a new shaman rekindles a dying flame in their hearts. Today I have fed them with hope.
Did I lie? Will the child be all that I say?
If I tell you I do not lie, would you believe me?
At night the people rest, foot-sore and heart-heavy. I soar into the sky. I see my wrinkled old body lying rumpled in the furs, and leave it behind to reach into the heavens. There is a mountain to the west; the cradle where the sun sets. Beyond the mountain is the land. We are so close. We have come so far.
In the morning the mountain is lost on the horizon. The clouds boil and roil, churning and turning, rolling towards us as if the sky has become the ocean. It is the storm at the end of all days, the one that will grow and grow until it consumes the world and all its ways.
My people shelter in caves. They huddle together, bundled into their furs until they look like a monstrous bear sleeping for the winter. The young ones cry. The elders fall silent and the final sleep beckons them. In the wind of the raging storm they hear the wings of the holy bird come to collect them.
I stand in the storm’s wildness and hear those wings. They sing to me of the sweetness and sorrow the future will bring. I hunch my shoulders against the wind. I imagine the feel of wings at my back. They lift me high into the sky, past the storm clouds, beyond the world and into the heavens where my mothers and fathers wait for me.
Now is the time.
And the time is mine.
Ashdan walks out to stand next to me. He does not cower before the storm. He is a blunt rock. The storm coats him white and frost hangs from his beard. His eyes are full of violence towards me.
I have led the people to their doom, he tells me.
The storm requires a sacrifice. I say the words and am pleased to see fear in his eyes. He thinks I mean to kill him.
He will not be the one to feel the raven’s wings.
It is my time to fly and to soar.
There will come a time, I tell him, when enemies will come. You will stand and protect the people. Your time is coming. But this time is mine. I will show you the way. I will guide you to a new land. Mine is the time, but yours is the hand.
He does not take my meaning.
You will kill me, I say.
The news is met with a stoicism that makes me proud. My people are hard and pragmatic: if I say I must die then it must be so. They put their faith in me. I have brought them this far, I will guide them the rest of the way from the world beyond.
Know this, then, if you would know anything at all. The last step and final breath of your mortal shell is not your end. I have travelled far and will travel farther. On black wings through starlit heavens.
People, oh my people, sink your roots deep into the soil of your new land. Let the mountains be your bones, let the rivers be your blood, let the land itself be your story.
I prepare. I bless the new-born child. He will grow to be raven-shaman when I am gone. I will guide him from beyond the final sleep, I reassure his mother. He will see me in his soul-dreams and I will bring him hard truths. I will teach him the names of the spirits and daemons. He will be a good guide for the new people.
In the storm’s relentless barrage, Ashdan raises his stone axe high. I throw my arms as wide as my wings and prepare to die.
Take my head, I tell him. Take my head and the bones tied to my hair. Take all of the people with you. Plant me in the earth; let us grow together in a new home.
He strikes true.
I have waited for this moment. I always knew it would come. The axe hits my neck with a crackand it is the sound of my wings bursting from my back and lifting me into the air. The storm does not touch me, for I am no longer of the world. I soar into the swirling chaos of the cosmos and its endless sea of night.
I am the raven.
I am the shaman.
I will guide my people.
The storm breaks and they see me in the sky; a black shape wheeling towards the mountains and over those distant peaks.
I live while my people live, and while I live I will not let them die. I guide them through the crags and hollows of the snow-wild mountains. Though the storm batters them, though stones rain on them, though the final sleep calls them.
Through the eyes of a thousand birds I see all that was, is, and shall be for the people. I am there when the sun breaks and they see trees and green grass. I am there when my people learn to love their new land. I am there when they bring forth the crops and fruits; I am there when they give thanks for the meat and milk of the animals.
I see this new land change. This land they call green and pleasant, they call Danelaw, Albion and more. I see the mountains fall into the sea. I see the land separated from all around it. I see my people change, shaped by the land that is their home.
From beyond the final sleep, I see my people everywhere; the mountains their bones, the rivers their blood, the land their life. Wherever the land is loved, they are there.
And I am there too. The black bird, watching. Ever watching. And ready to guide those who have the eyes to see; the ears to hear; and the heart to love.
Story copyright © 2019 by Damien Mckeating
Artwork copyright © 2019 by Gregory St. John
Damien Mckeating was born and a short time after that he developed a love of fantasy and the supernatural. His published short stories range from modern takes on Irish mythology to SF adventures for young readers. He’s even been known to write odd little songs for folk bands. He is fond of corvids, writes daily, and is currently the oldest he has ever been.
Gregory St. John is an artist and fiction writer living in Gainesville, Florida. If he is not painting or sculpting, tending to his gardens and chickens, studying history and science, reading while walking his four dogs, cooking, or building something, he is hard at work at the family perfume business, Solstice Scents. He is currently drafting his first novel and editing a collection of his short stories titled The Short and Curlies, featuring “The Presence of Hell,” “Servant of Stone,” “A Helping Hand,” and “The Dare.”