Legend Of The Cave Mother

In primeval times, before people tilled the fields, when men hunted and women gathered plants, Morigan, the clan elder woman, tended her tribe’s fire pit.

In the year of the wolf spider, a drought year with no game, her tribe moved south for many weeks until they came to a new warren of caves.

“Light a new fire,” the chief told her.

Morigan took brush and searched the caves for flint. She lither way with a small torch dipped in tar. The torch sputtered at first with the wind, but as she wandered deeper, all grew silent, dark, and calm. In one large cave she found a rune scribed across the wall. “This place has been inhabited before,” she surmised. She brought her torch low to scan the floor. It was flat with a few stones, and among the stones were the remains of a hearth, broken spearheads, and bones.

“Who are you?” a raspy voice whispered.

She saw no one in the darkness beyond the torch’s light.

“Light a fire and you shall see me,” the voice commanded.

Afraid, she checked her blade in her waist belt, then knelt and began a fire. “We are sorry to intrude,” she offered as she worked her hands. She wondered if there were more strangers, and if her own tribe would come rescue her. She applied the torch and blew on the fire. Sparks danced.

“You are skilled,” the voice rasped. As the new fire crackled, a nearby corpse trembled and slowly began to pick itself up.

She rose. “Go away, demon!” she shouted. Then she added, “We are sorry to disturb you. I can leave you a gem or a pelt. We will leave. The warriors trust me. They will listen.”

The figure stumbled up. It was a terrifying sight. Where there was skin, it was charred black. Where there was no skin, its bones were white as if burned by fire. Two burning embers sat in its skull sockets where eyes should be. Old Gutaba, Morigan’s teacher from her childhood, had warned her of the undead and their thirst for souls. She shuddered, as the cave chamber grew cold despite the fire. Her breath filled the air and wafted toward the creature as if drawn to it. She ran.

“Hello, help!” she yelled as she ran down a tunnel. Light and familiar voices did not come. Perhaps she took a wrong turn? She puzzled as she stopped to catch her breath. Perhaps this was a trick of the mind caused by this ghoul? If she continued running, would it then catch and devour her? What to do? Wait, she thought, Old Gutaba had said some ghouls would bargain, at least when it suited them. She had a plan.

Morigan checked her pouch of nuts and walked with a steady pace back to the fire chamber. The fire now burned strong but frost and icicles coated the cave.

“You are brave,” the creature rasped as she entered. It emerged from the dancing shadows.

“I have a deal,” she said to it, mustering all the confidence that she could.

“Really?” it replied in its raspy voice. “I’m listening.”

With shaking hands, she showed it that her bag had equal numbers of black and white nuts. Then she offered, “You and I will each draw one nut. If we draw the same color then I stay with you. If we draw different colors then I leave in peace.”

It sniggered, “I agree, a gamble well done.”

What the creature did not know was that black nuts weighed slightly more than white nuts. Morigan knew that what weighs more would sink to the bottom of the bag. But nothing was assured.

The ghoul, with its boney hand, drew white. So Morigan reached into the bottom of the bag. He groped around and clutched one. Her heart thumped as she drew it out. It was black.

She sighed in relief.

“Humph,” the ghoul replied. It did not move.

She wondered if it would argue and still kill her. Its eyes smoldered. In a moment, she wondered, what did her few remaining years of life have in store for her? More tending the fire and the chief’s needs?

“How about we play for more?” she offered.

“Yes, we shall,” it rasped with satisfaction. “I’m listening.”

“I am old,” Morigan began. “Years ago my tribe’s chief forced me to give him a child, a son. But he never married me. My boy was strong but stupid and died in a skirmish before he grew a man’s hair. If I win, you will give me your power over life and death, and I will return you to life as my son.

“And if I win,” the ghoul said, “I shall father you a son of darkness like the world has never known.” Morigan did not know how a ghoul could make fertile an old woman like her or father offspring. She shuddered at the thought of a boney little hand clawing out of her womb. Nothing the ghoul said suggested she would live either.

She returned the nuts to the bag and shook it vigorously.

“This time,” the ghoul said, “you draw first.”

She reached into the bag and drew a black nut.

The ghoul, with a tortured grin on its face, placed its burnt boney hand within.

Morigan’s tribe saw her later that afternoon, accompanied by a dark haired youth at her side. She strode proudly with vigor. In a year, she taught the people to sow and reap, smith swords, and draw runes. She rained a merciless white-hot fire upon the tribe’s enemies.

Far and wide, people invoked her name in fear as a Sorceress of Secrets.

“But mother, who can keep hold of power,” her son posed to her one evening by the fire. “Who can wield my power without losing hold of her own soul?”

And so it was, over the years, that the ghoul’s power slowly consumed Morigan from the inside out, until all that was left was her name, her legend, and a chilly pile of charred bones.

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