He was born with a caul over his face, and because of this they said a great destiny awaited him.
The midwife took the bloody flap of membrane and stashed it away in her medicine bag, for such things were powerful good luck. She did not ask the babe's mother for permission; the unfortunate woman lay blue-lipped and stiffening on her birthing skins and would most probably never reply to questioning ever again, if she were lucky. Her son, barely an hour old, squalled and pummeled the air with his fists, raging against the injustice of a world he barely knew yet already seemed disgusted with.
If, as the wise ones said, a caul over the eyes meant the child would have the gift of foresight, perhaps he could see what lay ahead in his future, and that was why he taxed his tiny lungs so. Perhaps this was not the case and the bairn was merely hungry and frightened by the crackling of the fire. Whatever the reason, the newborn wailed ceaselessly throughout the night and would not be silenced until a few hours before dawn, when an owl began to echo the orphaned child's cries with its own mournful hooting just outside the door.
The baby ceased to whimper after this.
Most in attendance believed the owl had come to ferry the soul of the dead woman to the other side, for that was the function of owls in the spirit world. Those who noticed the accompanying silence of the infant, however, rubbed their chins and wondered.
The grandmother that adopted him named the boy Emon, after the river that ran through their home village. She knew well the responsibility that lay ahead of her as the caretaker of a caul-bearer and took her duty deathly serious; from the time the child was old enough to toddle he was being given lessons, and if schooling a pupil at such a young age was considered unusual, the fact that he seemed to grasp each and every thing he was taught made the former seem commonplace by comparison.
He was a fey child, red-haired in a village where such a thing was unheard of and considered the illest of ill omens. The power of the caul protected him from harassment and exile, gaining him opportunities he would have otherwise been denied due to the colour of his hair, but still the shamans predicted strange things in his future, for his luck was split between the two warring portents he had been born under. Would it be the caul that won out or the strawberry-blonde locks that hung down over his eyes? None of them were certain for sure, and so they watched the boy's growth very carefully.
Emon knew nothing of the drama that surrounded his future. His primary joys in life were taking care of his pony and listening to his grandmother's tales of the spirit world; to both he gave all the attention his youthful mind could muster. What stories the old woman told! Myths of demons and animals and great shamans long since turned to earth and legend whirled about the eager lad's ears. He was like a thirsty sponge, absorbing every folk-story and bit of lore he could pester out of his long-suffering elders.
Things continued on in this manner until his seventh year, when the boy's destiny looked about and finally decided to follow a definite path.
It was hot the day it happened, cloudless with a warm wind blowing off the plains like the breath from some great sky-blacksmith's forge. Gritty dust rose from the ground in whirlwinds and coated every surface; long after he was a grown man Emon could still sometimes recall the smell of the baking soil and the taste of the sand in his mouth on that morning, grinding uncomfortably between his teeth. Most of the other children had gone to the river to splash and play in its clear waters – the land had been gripped by a drought for many weeks and the weather was dry – but as usual Emon had preferred the company of his pony and the open spaces of the steppe to the magpie chatter of the village boys, heat or no heat. To race swallows under the heavens with nothing but the North Wind ringing in your ears was a fine thing indeed, and that was just what he was doing when the vision took him.
He had a brief glimpse of his pony's legs and the hot blue sky turning upside-down like an overturned milk pail before he hit the ground and the breath was knocked out of him. Everything went dark after that.
He is an owl with great wings, flapping silently through a starless void. The sound of distant drums rings in his ears, driving him on towards some goal he is unsure of but determined to reach. For what seems like hours he flies and there is no change. Then, far, far ahead, he spies a spot of red. For some reason the sight of this unidentified splotch of rust on the horizon infuriates him; he beats his wings faster, trying to catch up, but no matter how hard he tries there is no gaining on that mysterious dot. It is like a will o' the wisp, a spectre, always sliding just out of reach.
There is no reason for him to be so angry. He cannot yet even tell what the object might be, only that it should not be there, should not be heading in that direction. Only he can stop it, and he will never stop trying, for to do that would be disastrous, the end of everything.
And then he awakens.
His friends found him thrashing unconscious on the grass, mumbling frantic words in a language none of them could understand. They carried him home to his grandmother, who listened to both their accounts and his own when he came to with an unreadable expression. She sent him to bed before the sun set with strict orders to stay there, and Emon believed that was the end of the affair - he had simply fallen off his pony; the next time he went riding he would be much more careful. The strange dream haunted him in a way he could not place, but he had told the grandmother about it, and that was really all he could do.
The next morning the old woman woke him early and took him to one of the shaman lords, and from that day forward that was where he stayed. He never saw his grandmother again.
The shaman who took him in was called Lord Altain, and an imposing figure he was. The old man was the most respected spirit walker in the village, a holy person of great stature and greater age, with skin like steppe-tanned leather and eyes that blazed with a furious light when he was angry. Luckily this happened little, for Emon was as good a pupil as Altain could have wished for and his words never fell on dry ground. The boy learned much, both about himself and his future.
The caul, Lord Altain explained, had been but the first sign that Emon might someday become special. It was a maybe; the vision, brief as it had been, was confirmation that his destiny was to be a shaman, as many of the elders had suspected from the outset. One did not merely train for the role, as a sandal-maker or a tailor or a blacksmith would do – to become powerful in magic, you had to be born to it, and so it was with young Emon. Once the formal rituals were completed, his tutelage would begin.
He was not scared when Lord Altain dressed him in his own robes and set him in the middle of the dance circle, although there was always the risk the spirits, capricious at the best of times, might steal his small body and twist it like a willow leaf in a dust-dervish. Even at such a young age the boy knew he could not escape his destiny; to turn and run from it would be like fleeing from a predator or a supernatural creature, an irresistible lure that would only result in him being knocked face-first into the dirt with sharp, merciless claws digging into his shoulder-blades. The best he could hope to do was stare it down and master it, and so he sat stock-still with his legs crossed underneath him as the ceremony commenced and his fate closed in.
They came dressed as horses and hawks and stags, as boars with oversized tusks jutting from their masks and proud bull-elk whose antlers threw eerie, flickering shadows in the firelight. The shamans stomped and danced and sang until the packed ground underneath Emon vibrated with their cries and the deep, omnipresent pounding of the drums. They were a forest of colourful robes and wood-carved faces; when he looked up at some of them he could almost see the human features hidden underneath the frozen expressions, but never quite. Eventually the noise and the movement and the ever-shifting glint of the bonfire light off polished wood and bronze confused his senses and whirled his head, and that was when the spirits entered and took him for the second time.
When he awoke it was to the mingled smells of acrid smoke from the fire and sweet incense being burned underneath his nostrils. The shamans looked as pleased as ascetic old men were allowed to; Lord Altain, his bull's mask pushed back to reveal his face now that the spirits had gone and there was no further threat, handed the boy the carved visage of an owl and painted the warding sigil on his forehead with holy pollen, signaling to all present that the second stage of Emon's existence had begun. A foolish figure he may have made, standing in the circle with the older man's oversized robes pooled around his legs, but no-one laughed. They had all been where he was, in their own youths, and to laugh at one's past would have been a disrespectful act, both to Emon and to themselves.
All of this newfound respect made Emon very happy, but no matter how hard he tried he could not remember what his vision had been about. He lay awake on his sleeping skins that night with the owl mask he had not yet grown into clutched tightly in his hands, wondering and thinking thoughts entirely too grave for a child of seven.
The years passed. Emon sprouted like a sapling, growing in both stature and power as time slipped by in a swift, uncheckable stream.
He learned many things. He learned to use his magic wisely, for a shaman was nothing more and nothing less than an instrument of his people, and if he ever cheated a villager who had come to ask for his help his power would dry up and wither in a day's time. He learned the deep legends that not even the oldest common people knew, the ones with truth at their roots that had to be learned for the safety of the village.
He came to understand the joy in helping others, the pain of solitude, and the thrill of feeling his body go limp as the drums rang in his ears and something greater than himself took control. The spirits had chosen him to be one of the go-betweens who interceded on their behalf, and he undertook this task with a seriousness rare in a shaman of so few decades. It did not take long for him to garner a reputation; on the eve of his twentieth birth-date Lord Altain, bowed and twisted by advanced age, rode the drums for the last time, and when the sky burial was over and the prey-birds began to swoop low Emon took his place as head of the village sect, voted in unanimously by his awed peers. It was a responsibility so great Emon feared it would bend his back double, but he accepted it without protest, thinking only of the good he could bring his people in such a position.
There were some places not even he was allowed to go in the temple, however. Behind a certain curtain lay two items, a map and a sword. For any but the shrine maidens to set foot past this barrier was a strict taboo; so sacred were these holy relics it was said they would shatter into a hundred thousand shards if an unclean hand touched them. The village elders never told him of their origins and Emon never asked, sure he would receive the tale eventually when they trusted him more fully.
At least once a year he dreamed of flying over the landscape on great owl-wings, always in pursuit of that eerie red speck. Things were changing, though – with each decade that passed he drew a little closer, gaining a little more ground on his unidentified foe. Very soon he was able to make out individual features; when at last a vision came that allowed him to fully perceive the shape and nature of the thing he pursued, the dream-owl squawked shrilly in triumph.
It was a young hawk, rust-coloured as autumn leaves.