Legend says that the draugamunninn were once human. They were a practical but severe people who after suffering one terrible winter too many, and after failing to feed themselves with their own hands and their own labor, began to pray to their old gods for relief. But their prayer was not answered by a god.
It was answered by a demon.
The demon appeared on the borders of their region, the white-haired demon who was paler than the snow. This demon promised that it could bring winter to an end and bring abundance to all crops that were planted. If the people could ration what little they had left until the spring, most—perhaps even all—would survive. But there was, of course, a price to be paid. The price the demon demanded was a baby, just one baby, any baby from among the people. The people asked for some time to consider the dark bargain. And the demon allowed them three days.
During those three days, the people saw their rations dwindle even further. They were doubtful they would last the winter, even if they had rich harvests to look forward to. But if they didn’t have rich harvests, then none might survive. They were facing the end of their people. But who would sacrifice their own child?
Many volunteered to be the sacrifice in place of a baby. And the leader of the people, a man named Nikolai, hoped that the demon would agree to take six men and six women and one wise elder in payment.
When the third day had passed, the demon returned, and requested an answer to his bargain. Nikolai told him their answer, and he offered the thirteen volunteers who had agreed to sacrifice their lives for their people. But the demon was unimpressed. He asked again for a baby. His spell would only work, he said, if he had a baby. Nikolai wanted to refuse the demon. He wanted to tell the demon that his people would find another way. But when he turned to look at his people, his people who had already tried every other way they could, when he looked in their hollow eyes and gazed upon the sharp angles of their gaunt faces, he knew he had to make the bargain.
Valka was a sorceress, and she was his wife. She was strong of spells and strong of body, and yet she had still died bearing the last of their children, a boy who was still a baby. Weeping for his son and for his own soul, Nikolai ordered that his baby son be brought forth.
“I offer you my son, and with him my heart and my soul, for I am now damned,” he told the demon.
He hoped that one of his people would stop him, for how could they be blessed when they bore the burden of letting an innocent, one who could not choose his own fate, be carried off by a demon?
But none came forth to stop him.
“What will you do with him?” Nikolai asked the demon.
“It is best you do not know.”
“Where will you take him?”
“To the highest hill, where the sun shines even in the midst of winter storm.”
And with that the demon vanished into the snowfall.
Nikolai went back to his home, followed by weak thanks and apologies by many whom he passed. He had chosen his people over his son. He had chosen to be a leader over being a father. He had never dreamed that the two would be at odds, for he had always believed himself to be the father of his people.
But he failed at both. He had failed at being a father. And he had failed at being a leader.
At once, he turned back, without a word to his other sons and daughters, or to his advisors, or to any of his people. Only this did he do. He left the medallion that signified his leadership upon the peg beside the front door where he hung his winter cloak. The cloak his swept upon his shoulders, and he rode as hard as he could to the highest hill, where the sun shone even in the midst of winter snowfall. And he hoped he would not be too late.
Nikolai reached the highest hill. He dismounted from his exhausted but faithful steed, and he tramped up the hill, fearing he might have stopped at the wrong one in confusion. The snow was falling steadily. And the sky was dim with gray clouds.
As he climbed, the sky grew even dimmer, and his heart, still heavy with the terrible deed he had done, faltered. He fell to his knees. But on the chill winds that swept past him, he thought he heard a familiar sound, the sound of burbling laughter. Joy and terror struck his heart. His son’s laughter filled his heart with joy.
But it also filled him with terror, for if he did not rise and reach the babe in time, his son would be lost to him forever.
Nikolai rose and kept walking, and the sky darkened. Suddenly, a stream of sunlight struck the ground before his feet. As he walked on, the snow thinned until only specks of flakes floated softly past him. He stepped into a clearing that was bright with sunlight, bright and warm.
And there in the middle of the clearing was the snow-pale demon holding the baby boy.
Nikolai charged toward the demon.
The demon had been holding a knife to the baby, and he sliced. But the cut struck shallow. The boy’s father reached him in time to save his life.
And to end the demon’s.
Nikolai drew his own knife and cut down the demon.
As the demon laying dying, he stuck out his pale white tongue, and he caught the single drop of blood that fell from the baby’s wound. He lapped up the drop, and then he went still.
Nikolai brought his son and the body of the demon back home.
He hoped his people would show him mercy when they discovered that he had broken his bargain with the demon. And he hoped that the scholars would be able to study the demon’s dead body and discern something that might help their people.
When he told the gathered crowd of his chase and his struggle with the demon, he noted their hungry, hollow eyes watching him and watching his son. He began to fear when they came closer. He stepped back, ready to flee, but then he saw that they were not approaching him, but the bundle he had brought back. The large bundle in which was wrapped the body of the demon.
He could not have left it on the hill, even if he did not need proof to show his people. Demons were tricky, and this one might have left some spell nearby that would resurrect him.
The people unwrapped the bundle. And to Nikolai’s horror, they began to chop up the demon’s body and to pass it out amongst themselves. For this was to be each family’s evening meal. Nikolai longed to cry out and tell his people to stop. But when he saw their hunger, he feared for his son, whom he had just saved. And he said nothing.
That spring, the people enjoyed a modest crop. Some still died of hunger. But most survived. And the next year was even better.
But they noticed that something strange was happening. Every now and then, a baby would disappear. A searched would be mounted, and the search would fail.
What the people did not know, what they soon came to discover was this. Doomed were all who ate of the flesh of a demon. Doomed they were with a curse. The demon’s last act in life was to taste the blood of a baby. And that was the first act of the people in death. For when they died, those who had eaten demon flesh, they became anchored to life, unable to pass into the afterlife, and they developed a craving for living flesh. And while they shunned larger animals, they sought small creatures, like chickens, cats, and small dogs. But most of all, they craved the tender flesh of babies. And just as the demon had done, they would take those babies into the sunlight, and devour them.
When the people realized what was happening, they despaired. Their new leader did not know what to do. He tried to seek a curse-breaker but every one he found could not break the curse. Word began to spread of the cursed people. Merchants began to bypass their lands. There were less visitors—be they people of renown or just ordinary folk from the surrounding regions and beyond.
Nikolai wanted nothing more than to leave his youngest son and all his children in the care of those who were worthy. For he who had offered up his child to a demon no longer judged himself worthy to be a father.
But he had already abandoned his youngest son once. He would not do it again. He took care of his children, keeping them safe. And all the while he wondered what could be done for his people. Could the restless creatures who walked the earth as devouring ghosts ever be set free? Could the curse upon those who were still living be broken?
He wondered, and as he wondered, he watched his children grow up. And always he wished to send them all away, to somewhere where they might escape the curse that plagued his people. But he hadn’t the means.
One night, he dreamt a restless dream. In it he saw a visage of his wife. Many years had passed since Valka died, but still his heart ached for her, and still the sight of her filled him with love and fondness and passion.
“I am not a dream, my love,” she told him. “I am the spirit of your wife, the very one you loved and lost. I have been summoned here, and while I’ve come, I have deigned to visit you and tell you things that you must know.”
“Who summoned you? What blessed soul do I have to thank?”
The ghost of Valka told him that their youngest child was charmed. When the demon drank his blood, he drank a portion of the child’s entire essence. That meant that those who ate the demon’s body were linked to the boy. It meant that only he could break their curse, if he chose to. She hoped that he would choose to. Not all of their people had eaten of the demon. But too many had, and those people’s children would inherit their curse just as if those children too had eaten of the demon.
When Nikolai woke the next morning, he struggled to rise from his bed, for his heart felt as heavy as a stone. But rise he did. And he went to his son, Sofus, whose gentle cheeks were still puffed with the last remnants of his infancy.
It was too soon.
While Nikolai waited for his son to grow old enough to bear the burden of his people’s salvation, those same people died and became creatures that roamed the land, always hungry for tender flesh. They came to be known as the “draugamunninn,” the “ghostly mouth.”
When Sofus reached his tenth year of life, his father told him what path he must walk to save his people. His father tried to teach him the ways of the warrior, as he knew them, so that Sofus could battle the draugamunninn. His father gathered sorcerers around him, so that Sofus could learn spells both simple and arcane, in his quest to break the curse upon his people. His father sent Sofus to learn with great scholars. And every year, when Sofus grew a year older, his father would ask him if he had found a way to break the curse. Oftentimes, Sofus would say that he had not. On occasion, he would say that he had, and he would tell his father his plan.
Sofus tried many spells and potions, treatments and remedies. None worked. On one volunteer, he even tried a minor surgery. That too did not work. In his seventh year, he found a system of caves in which searing springs bubbled forth from the earth. He built a hot room in a chamber that connected to those springs, and he invited those who wished to be free of the curse to come and have their spirits cleansed in the hot room.
Sofus tried. And Sofus failed.
He could not save his people.
Upon the turning of his twentieth year of life, he told his father that he must give up.
Nikolai entreated his son to take a good rest, but then to keep seeking.
That night, Nikolai again dreamt of his beloved. He again was visited by the spirit Valka.
She glowed, but she glowed only dimly in the shadow of a new moon. She came bearing news.
The news woke Nikolai with such a fright that his heavy heart shattered at last. He woke his household, and summoned Sofus, who was the only one of his children who still lived under his roof. All others had married and moved away.
Nikolai and Sofus rode all morning and into the late afternoon to meet with one of those others. Sofus’s sister, youngest before him, had just born her second child. But before she could feed the little girl her first meal, the child had vanished.
Where there should have been laughter and singing, Nikolai arrived to find wailing and weeping.
His daughter told him that no one knew what might have happened to the child. The infant girl had been healthy, stout and strong, like her grandmother, and full of laughter, as her Uncle Sofus had been when he was a babe.
Nikolai lamented with his daughter and her husband.
But Sofus felt only a restless despair.
He rode out with the other people of his sister’s town to search for the lost baby.
There were those who hoped that she had only been stolen by a kidnapper who wished to ransom her back to her well-to-do family. And there were those who hoped she had only been stolen by a poor misguided woman unable to bear her own children. And there were those who hoped she had been stolen by fairies out of mischief, and that bargains might be made for her safe return.
But beneath all the guesses that the townsfolk dared to speak aloud was the one guess that they dared not utter.
But Sofus did not guess. He knew.
He knew that a draugamunninn had taken his little niece.
He knew because his blood knew. His blood rippled within his veins, condensing into two threads, one linked to his niece, and one to the draugamunninn.
His father had told him the story more than once. Always with his proud eyes cast to the ground, Nikolai had told Sofus the story of the pale demon who had drunk a drop of his blood.
Sofus had not succeeded in thwarting the curse that had fallen upon his people when they devoured the flesh of a demon. But he had succeeded in learning many an arcane spell.
With one of those spells, he thrummed the delicate threads of his own blood, following their vibrations to the place where both threads met. The thread of his kin, and the thread of his ruin.
A ghost paced beside him. But this was one that Sofus did not fear. This spirit took steps that matched his own. The tense and cautious and soft steps of one who was practiced in sorcery.
“Greetings, mother,” Sofus said, keeping his gaze on the path before him. “Have you come to help me find our girl?”
But the spirit said nothing in return.
Sofus came to a bluff beside a stream that trickled weakly through the litter of countless leaves from the forest of elms.
Under that bluff, he caught movement. Sofus did not call out to the other searchers. The thrumming of his blood was so strong that his bones now answered with their own vibrations. He stepped quietly toward the opening. He peeked within, and when his eyes attuned themselves to the darkness of the hovel, he saw them.
The draugamunninn and his niece.
Sofus had never seen a draugamunninn before. It looked nothing like a living person. And it looked nothing like a ghost. The unliving creature was dressed in rags that were torn and heavy with the muck of wherever it had roamed through, mud and refuse, rain and grime. Its posture was hunched and curled inward. Its limbs were taut and cramped in weird angles. The face might once have been human, but the creature’s nose had grown sharp, the nostrils long and flared. Its sunken eyes were filmy and speckled with yellow sores.
And its mouth was stretched so wide that the jaw nearly reached its feet.
It loomed over the little babe, whose curled fists Sofus could see within the bundle that lay on a pallet.
She wasn’t crying, his little niece.
The draugamunninn must have cast some kind of spell upon her to calm her.
But Sofus could not fathom how the creature could have known such a spell. It was not a difficult spell, but it did require some skill and focus. And it did require learning.
This draugamunninn might have been a sorcerer when he was still alive.
Sofus did not know what to do. If he called out to the other searchers, he would make himself known, and the creature would surely kill him and devour his niece.
He must call for help only after he had devised some way to keep the draugamunninn away from the baby until the searchers could come to rescue her.
Sofus prepared to cast a spell of blinding and a spell of tripping. And when those were spent, he would reach for the small knife at his belt and hope that he remembered some little of the training that his father had once give him.
But even as he braced himself to step into the hovel, the draugamunnin turned and saw him.
The creature moaned, and Sofus felt the threads of blood within his veins quiver as if thrummed. The low-pitched moan was like the pleading keening of an animal slowly dying. He caught his breath and felt a strange calm as he faced the moment of his death.
But the draugamunninn did not charge him. It turned away from him, and reached its long and crooked fingers toward the baby.
“No!” Sofus cried. “Stop!”
And the draugamunnin stopped. It moaned. It shook its head, spattering muck over the pallet and baby. And it reached for her again.
Sofus suddenly felt one of the threads of his blood grow taut.
“Stop!” Sofus cried again. “Away from her! Away from her, I beg you!”
The draugamunnin stopped again. Moaning, it stepped away from the baby.
Sofus felt a great exhaustion come over him, and he faltered as he took another step into the hovel.
“Farther away,” he said. “Step farther away.”
And as he spoke, the draugamunninn did.
But every step Sofus took toward his niece was heavier than the last. He was not pained. He was tired. His muscles began to buckle.
At last, the baby began to cry. Sofus picked her up. But he could move no more. His eyelids drooped.
“Stay away,” he said, his words weak as a whisper.
But weak as they were, the draugamunninn heeded.
Sofus fell to his knees, still holding the screaming baby. Past his drooping eyelids, he watched the draugamunnin, whose head twitched this way and that.
Sofus knew what the creature was doing. He recognized the gestures well. The draugamunnin was trying to throw off a spell. Sofus had not cast any spells, not that he knew. But the creature had obeyed him anyway. He opened his mouth to speak, but found he could not.
If the creature threw off the effects of the commands that Sofus had given it, it would surely come for him. It would surely come for his niece.
The draugamunninn took a step toward Sofus.
And a step was all it could take.
For the entrance to the hovel burst with daylight as two men leapt in, one of them stabbing the draugamunninn through the heart, the other grasping Sofus by the shoulders and heaving him up.
Sofus tried, but could not keep his eyelids from dropping all the way down.
When Sofus woke, he woke to the sound of a baby laughing. When he smiled, he found his face moved according to his will. His eyes opened as wide as he wanted them to. He was no longer drained of all vitality.
In the days that followed, his sister and her husband doted on him, praised him, thanked him, and wept before him, for there was nothing they could do that could equal what he had done for them.
And in the days that followed, Sofus spoke to his father of his encounter with the draugamunninn. Together they studied the texts that they found in that town’s archives and libraries. Sofus was certain, and his father agreed, that he had no need to cast a spell on the draugamunnin, for the creature was already under his spell. The drop of his blood that the pale demon had drunk bound Sofus to all those who later devoured that demon, to all the draugamunninn.
“Alas, all this time. I could have commanded them,” said Sofus.
But it was not so simple, for Sofus discovered that when he commanded the draugamunninn, the bond of blood drew the very vitality out of him, using that vitality to turn the will of the creature. He had collapsed because he needed rest, to replenish that vitality. And further still, the creature’s skill in casting the spell of calming on the baby was not a skill it had learned, in life or after life. After the creature was dead, it was examined, and they discovered who it had been in life. A man, a blacksmith, with no skill in spellcasting. But that spell of calming was one that Sofus knew well. That bond of blood conveyed the skill of Sofus as well as the will of Sofus to all the draugamunnin.
Even as he spoke to his father when waking, Sofus spoke to his mother when sleeping, in his dreams. The ghost was not so silent in his dreams.
“I am too young,” he told her, as they strolled through a garden of luminescent flowers, whose colors he practiced changing at will. “I haven’t the wisdom yet to find the end to my people’s curse. But I cannot spend my life seeking that wisdom, while the draugamunninn run rampant. I wonder if there is some way that I can hold them to my will, all of them, while still gaining wisdom.”
“There is power to be drawn from sleep, from dreams,” his mother advised.
“Enough power to command the draugamunninn not to feed?” Sofus asked.
Sofus knew what he must do, even as he had known what to do when he went searching for his lost niece.
He placed himself in an enchanted sleep. And within his sleep, within his dream, he extended his will, through the many threads of blood within his veins that bound him to each and every draugamunnin.
In sleep, his vitality was replenished even as it was drained. For his body was still of its other activities. And his will was focused.
As Sofus slept for many seasons, the ghost of his mother told him what she saw in the waking world.
The draugamunninn had transformed. Their pale gray skin turned black. Their pale gray hair turned black. Their eyes turned black. Their wide mouths closed replaced by great black beaks. Even their ragged clothing turned black, black as shadow. And into shadow the creatures retreated.
Chained to his sleeping will, the draugamunninn turned away from devouring flesh. And better still, Sofus directed their restless longing toward other dangerous creatures that plagued his people. The draugamunnin began to chase and hunt blood-drinkers, ghouls, and werebeasts. Some of the draugamunninn even walked about during the day, in winter, when all were dressed in coats, cloaks, gloves, and hats, when their faces could be concealed from those who might take fright.
If Sofus could have held them that way forever, then there might be no need to break the curse. For the draugamunnin were dead, but they were not immortal. In time, their forms would succumb to damage and decay, and they would fade away. And whether or not their spirits found their way to the afterlife, Sofus did not know.
But Sofus was alive and mortal. He would die one day. The enchanted sleep would delay that day for a long, long time. An age, perhaps even an eon. But the day would come when he would die.
So Sofus would not sleep forever.
He would gather wisdom as he slept, through his dreams, and through the whisperings of the ghost who stayed by his side, guarding him as he slept.
Valka too would learn, so that she could teach her son. And she would watch the world change as generations came and went, adding their pages to the book of knowledge.
As Sofus woke, his hold upon the draugamunninn would break. They would once again become the pale gray hungry creatures who sought only to devour flesh. But Sofus would have the wisdom to break the curse of their craving and free his people.
When the time came, Valka visited her husband as he lay dying after a long and peaceful life. She sent Nikolai gently into the afterlife, promising that she would bring herself and their lastborn child to him once their work was done.
But there was something Valka did not know. Something Sofus did not know.
The longer he slept, the longer it would take for him to wake.
As his sleeping would take an age, his waking too would take a long, long time. A thousand years of withdrawing his will from the world. And for those thousand years, there would be blood and tears in the lands where the draugamunninn emerged from shadow and hungered once again.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel