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Watchtower by Martin Greaney
SUMMARY: A shaman is ejected from town when he fails to stop the theft of sacred objects.
It was three days after the theft of the skulls that the two men arrived at the gates on horseback. The disappearance of the dusty relics had cast a shadow over the walled town and its inhabitants, who feared the return of the souls who had once inhabited the bodies. Three magicians, two females and a male, had finally had their murderous lives brought to an end by the town's own shaman, in addition to the militia brave enough to stay by his side. The bodies were buried, not cremated, and the skulls removed in the traditional manner to prevent the rising of the dead. With the heads separated from the bodies, the spirits were unable to return to the land of the living.
It was the middle of the afternoon when the riders approached. The season would normally have held a blue ceiling over this town and others, but as if to reflect the mood of the times, massive thunder heads reared over the towers and parapets of the outer wall, threatening. The air was heavy and oppressive, weighing on the spirits of the living.
As the horses came to a halt at the lip of the deep trench surrounding the town, a sole head emerged from the head of the left of the two towers flanking the east gate. Smoke rose from a high room concealed within, bringing a sharp, sweet tang to the air. The armed and armoured man now looking down at the pair was most surprised.
Rare and troubled were the times when the shaman had not foreseen these minor events. But now the shaman sat alone in his watchtower, staring at the fire, and had done so for days. Those messengers bringing food and drink would report no change in the shaman's position, as if watching unknown visions flying through his mind. But always the provisions were eaten. No words fell from the lips of this wise creature, since the theft, too busy battling the daemons no doubt let loose by those who now possessed the full remains.
Shrouded within his chamber, within his trance, the shaman never heard the exchange between the guard on the parapet and the new arrivals, and was only dimly aware of the huge drawbridge being laboriously lowered, allowing the riders in.
Countless hours had passed, and the shaman was beginning the slow journey back to the land of the living. This was the most delicate stage of the operation, as the mind made sporadic contact with the body and the material world. A series of cycles, like an uncoiling spring, led back to solid ground. Interruption at the wrong point and the spring would recoil, becoming entangled in itself, and the shaman would be lost forever.
There was a hard knock at the weighty wooden door. One eye under the coarse wool hood snapped open. It glanced suspiciously at the door, then closed again.
The door slammed open, straining the hinges. Two heavy set men in the king's livery marched into the room, seized the shaman under each shoulder, and dragged his unresisting body away.
Finally, after cobbled surfaces, stairs and ageing flagstone floors, the shaman was dropped to the floor.