20 June, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XIV

Sorry this one's late too—the usual excuses, plus alien abduction, thwarting supervillains, etc.

If you missed them, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


It was only in retrospect that Erik appreciated the uneventfulness of their journey north. The trip itself was mostly dull tedium.

He should have been distracted by Aiar and Ollemar teaching him to wield magic. But as the days wore on, two things became evident:

Aiar did not really know how to teach someone who learned as fast as Erik did.

Ollemar did not know how to teach at all.

The fae struggled to compress a decade’s worth of lessons into a few short days. He was constantly worried that Erik would overreach and burn himself out, or cause some sort of arcane explosion. Erik would get the hang of something and then want to begin experimenting with it at once. “No!” Aiar would insist. “You must practice the forms more. To rush headlong into advanced magical knowledge is pure folly, as I have repeatedly told you.”

Yet Erik didn’t blow himself up. He had teased out the threads Aiar had told him about. They were the basic unit of fae energy, tiny little lines of violet light writhing in the air. He spent most of a day, as they walked along the decreasingly distinct road, manipulating individual threads and trying to make them do interesting things. By evening he was frustrated with their apparent uselessness. “They’re too small to do anything with, by themselves,” he complained as they sat around the campfire.

Aiar snorted. “Nonsense. It’s only a matter of scale. Sometimes small, subtle magic is just as important as big, flashy effects.”

“How so?”

Aiar stared at him for several seconds. Erik began to feel uncomfortable, then realized that it wasn’t just Aiar’s gaze—something was tickling his neck. He slapped at it, thinking it was a bug, then yelped when a line of fire erupted on his shoulder. He tried to twist away from it, and then it was gone. “What in the hells did you do?”

“That was a single thread, tied upon itself, like so.” Aiar demonstrated, more visibly, in the air above the fire. Erik watched as Aiar formed a thread of violet light in the air and wove it into a knot. Then the fae picked up a pebble and flung it at the knot. When it struck, the knot erupted in a flare of eye-searing light, and was gone.

Erik tried for an hour to duplicate Aiar’s knot. He couldn’t manage it; the thread always unravelled itself. But by the time he lay down to sleep, he could get it to hold for a few seconds.

When he told Aiar, the fae grunted. “The average fae spends a good month on that knot to make that kind of progress.”

“You sound like you’re accusing him of something,” Kari interjected from her bedroll.

“Accusing? No, no. He would have to have actual wits in order to be capable of premeditated malice.” Aiar rolled over and began loudly snoring.

Ollemar, by contrast, seemed to want Erik to learn quickly—but he couldn’t explain Brandrinn magic in any way that made sense to Erik at all. At first, back in the forest, his words had been ominous and mystical. Erik eventually realized that everything the—relatively—young Brandrinn said about magic was so vague as to be useless. “You must feel the flow of life,” Ollemar said, without being able to explain what the flow of life was supposed to feel like.

Eventually, Erik would just try something, and Ollemar would watch. “Yes, like that,” Ollemar would say, or, “No, not like that.” More precision he simply could not give.

“How on earth did you learn magic?” Erik grunted one afternoon as they walked.

“By practicing.”

“But who taught you?”

“The forest taught me,” Ollemar said, as if it should be obvious. “Brandrinn do not spend much time together, even with the newer woodsmen. The forest teaches all that needs be known.”

“Ain’t enough,” Finnar said.

Now there was a curious relationship. Finnar was older than Ollemar, had been a Brandrinn for longer, and had left the forest even before Ollemar had entered it. But he was no longer a Brandrinn, and couldn’t wield a lick of magic. Still, Ollemar usually deferred to him.

“There have never been enough Brandrinn to organize any sort of academy,” Ollemar said.

“There ought t’be. We were too isolated, too aloof. The forest’s important,” he said, holding up a hand as Ollemar was about to protest. “But we got set in our ways, and it ain’t done us any good.”

Aiar, who had been striding ahead, fell back and joined the conversation. “You know, if I’d known there was a former Brandrinn in Bjarheim, I would have sought you out.”

“I thought you disdained us,” Ollemar said.

“I once spent four decades studying beetles. It does not follow that I wish to be one.”

“So they’re like bugs to you, huh?” Kari said.

“Perhaps in intellectual capacity,” Aiar said, a twinkle in his eye. Whatever disdain he did have toward the Brandrinn, there was no cruelty behind it. It was more like a competitive streak.

Erik didn’t say anything. He was half listening, and half trying to spin strands of green forest magic together. Waving his hands around seemed to help him concentrate, but he had learned that he didn’t actually need to do so. If he could master magic without even moving, well, that would really be something.

Summer though it might be, the air grew chillier the further north they went, until one morning Erik spied specks of white hanging on the branches of a pine. By the end of that day the ground was fairly covered in crackling snow. Erik and Kari spent a while tromping around in it, laughing and throwing clods of dirty snow at one another. Sure, they might be on some grand, dangerous adventure; but there was no reason they couldn’t have fun, was there? Even if the grown-ups all muttered disapprovingly. Well, that just made it more fun.

But the relative novelty of snow wore off in a day or so, when they found themselves tromping through it for hours on end. Since the farms where they’d left the rest of the Bjarheimers, they’d seen only one small settlement, a trading outpost that hadn’t been any use to them. This far north, there was virtually no habitation by anything recognizably human. Erik remembered hearing stories of forest trolls as a child, but Finnar and Ollemar and Aiar didn’t mention it, so he kept quiet about it.

The land was quiet here, too. There were a few animals about: snow hares and foxes, snowy owls with their vast wings. Even, once, a family of bears, frolicking in the snow down in a rocky glen. Finnar and Ollemar were able to trap game now and then, to supplement what they had in their packs.

Eventually even the animals stopped appearing, and the trees began to grow sparse. The snowdrifts got deeper, and Erik spent as much time wading through the snow as he did stopping to rest afterward. He began to dread the sight of the tough elk jerky he pulled from his pack for every meal.

Around midday, ten days into their trek, they came to the crest of a ridge, a black and rocky outcrop that stretched out of sight to either side of them. “The Styggen,” Finnar murmured.

Beyond the outcrop, at the bottom of a long, steep slope, lay a landscape even more desolate. Jagged spikes of dark rock leaned drunkenly upon one another. The ice between them was an unearthly blue, smooth and clear, and completely free of snow. There were straight square pillars of stone, lighter than the rock spikes and… thicker, somehow, soaring upward. They looked like something wrought by the hands of men. Not like the spikes, which somehow seemed wrong and evil.

But the whole of it was suffused with a golden glow that Erik had never seen before. It looked like warmth to him, even though the air was as biting as he’d ever felt it. The golden light flowed and banded around the rocky spikes, seeming to move.

“I think I see… some magic,” Erik said, completely uncertain, but tingling with excitement. Here, right here, there was a third kind of magic for him to learn. Somehow, the prospect didn’t feel like a weight on his shoulders, as it did with the fae and Brandrinn magic. He itched to dive into the golden veil and see what it felt like.

“What sort?” Aiar said.

“Not fae or Brandrinn. It’s the wrong color. It’s like… a thin gold curtain’s been hung over the whole place.”

“Ironspeaker magic,” Finnar said. “I’ve heard them speak of gold light before.”

“What does it mean?” Kari said. “What does it look like?”

Erik shrugged. “It’s got no shape, just a big golden flow. Like a river, almost. But if that’s ironspeaker magic, then Djalgand Skaldi must be here! Let’s go!”

He excitedly began to clamber over the last few feet of the ridge, but powerful hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back. “Not yet,” Finnar said. “We need to be careful. A man doesn’t live in a place like this ’less he’s tryin’ to stay away from folk.”

“Well we can’t just leave him there,” Erik whined. He had to go in there. He pulled against his Da’s hands, but Finnar did not yield.

“What’s gotten into you?” Aiar said, suddenly worried. “You’re an excitable youth of an excitable race, but I’ve never seen you this agitated.” He turned to Ollemar. “A trap? Some kind of ward, perhaps.”

“I am forced to agree,” Ollemar said. “To rush in would be foolish.”

But couldn’t they see how important this was? Erik had to find Djalgand Skaldi! To come all this way, only to stop now…

Aiar began waving his hands. Erik dragged his gaze away from the golden ruins below and saw Aiar make some sort of large flat plate of fae energy, as tall as a tall man and half again as wide. He pushed it in front of Erik, partly blocking his view of the valley.

The shield Aiar had woven was vaguely interesting, and the more Erik looked at it, the more intrigued he became. In a few moments, although he was still aware of the valley beyond, he did not feel quite so compelled to visit it. He did still want to find Djalgand Skaldi, of course. And wasn’t it important that they found him quickly? “We should still go down there,” Erik said. “Er… shouldn’t we?” He glanced up at his father, and then at Aiar and Ollemar and Kari.

They all had their eyes wide open, staring at him. “Did you all notice that?” Aiar said.

“Notice what—” Erik began, but then Ollemar swung his staff up and began weaving his own shield. In a few moments he completed it and placed it before Erik, overlapping Aiar’s. All of a sudden, the valley beyond looked like a cold and forbidding place. He could still see the golden light, but it had gone paler now, more like desiccated straw than the gold of fresh flax. “What’s going on?”

Finnar grunted. “There’s some sort of glamor on you, making you want to rush down into the valley. Unless I miss my guess, Aiar and Ollemar put shields between you an’ the gold light. Right?”

Ollemar nodded. Aiar said, “Djalgand Skaldi clearly does not want visitors. I do not doubt that there are multiple wards of ironspeaker magic in place. One, large and powerful, that seems to only affect those who can see ironspeaker magic. Perhaps Djalgand feared that other ironspeakers might come after him. The other wards… Well, we can only speculate what they might do to someone who stupidly blundered into them.” He eyed Erik.

The ramifications began to dawn on Erik. He hadn’t wanted to go down into the valley; some magic had tried to compel him. “If there are other wards down there… we’ll have to get rid of them, if we want to get to Djalgand. But how?”

“You’re going to have to learn ironspeaker magic real quick,” Kari said. “Else we’ve got no choice but to turn back. And I didn’t come all this way to just give up on Bjarheim!”

“She’s right,” Aiar said, glaring at Kari anyway. “Only you can see the weavings. We must get you close enough so that you can destroy them before they harm us.”

“Wait. You want to go into the trap?” Ollemar said.

“Unless you have a better idea,” Aiar said. “And Erik is going to lead the way.”

Ultimately they ended up lashing Erik to his father with rope. Finnar was so much larger and stronger than Erik that even if the ironspeaker’s glamor took hold of Erik again, he wouldn’t be able to pull his father along. It made for awkward movement, though. Erik let himself be shuffled along by his Da, skidding down through the snow on the steep ridge. Finnar ended up leaning back so far that he was more or less scooting along on his rear, with Erik hanging from his belly.

The way down was treacherous for them all. Aiar and Ollemar couldn’t keep the shields steady, and Erik felt the pull of the valley again and again. He knew it wasn’t real, that it was the magic drawing him in, but that didn’t make it any less enticing. When the shields wavered, everything else became unimportant.

They finally made it to the bottom, to the clear blue ice that, oddly, was not slippery, but felt more like stone. Erik could feel the chill of it through his boots.

He still saw the golden dome looming overhead; they’d passed through its outer wall at some point. “Why did we stop?” he whined. “We have to keep going!”

Aiar and Ollemar pushed their shields in place again, and Erik felt the glamor fall away. This was exhausting him, this constant wavering between desire and fear. And he hadn’t even done any magic yet.

“Where’s the first ward?” Ollemar said.

“There.” Erik pointed at the base of one of the jagged spikes of dark rock. There was a golden wire strung between it and another spike a few dozen yards away, at about knee level. Almost like… “A tripwire,” he said, shuddering.

“This is going to be delicate,” Aiar said. “We can’t see it, and we have to keep the shields in place, or you’ll try to run off.”

“I ain’t undoing these ropes,” Finnar grunted at the fae. “If you slip, and he runs off into the wards—”

“I won’t slip, but it would not do to be incautious.” Aiar turned to Kari. “You. Stay right there.”

“I’m not—”

Aiar grabbed her by the arms and lifted her five feet straight up. “You will stay there.” He set her down without another word and turned away. Kari got the message, because she had frozen stock-still, glowering at Aiar but clearly unwilling to test the fae further.

Erik wanted to have her by his side. He tore his gaze away and looked back at the ward. “Let’s go. One step at a time.”

Finnar trudged forward, Erik matching his strides. He held up a hand when they were a few strides away, and his Da came to a stop. Aiar and Ollemar crept up beside them, staying back half a step just to be safe. “There,” Erik said, pointing down. This close, the golden wire glittered and shifted, tiny ripples skittering back and forth along its surface almost too fast for the eye to track.

Now what? Ironspeakers sang their magic, didn’t they? Erik didn’t have much of a voice. When everyone gathered at feasts and hearths, and sang the old songs of the north, Erik always just hummed along. He started humming now, partly just to distract himself, and partly—

The golden wire vibrated, shivering up and down as if plucked. Erik stopped his humming, and the wire came to rest. He hummed some more, experimenting, trying to discern any pattern.

“I assume something is happening,” Aiar said. Erik was annoyed by his impatience. How fast did he think something was going to happen? He ignored the fae, and hummed louder. The wire vibrated more, and Erik began to hear its sound, matching his own. He hummed high and low, and the wire vibrated faster and slower in response. He pushed the pitch up as high as he could—

The wire snapped, splitting right in its center, the two halves whipping apart as if they’d been under great tension. Erik jerked back, and clenched his right hand where one of the wires had slashed at it. There was a great red welt across the palm, and it burned like the seven hells. He jammed his hand into the snow to try and stop the pain.

“What happened?” Ollemar said. Erik looked and saw that the two halves of the wire had wrapped themselves around the base of each jagged rock spike. From the broken end of each wire floated a soft golden mist, and he realized that the broken wires were dissolving. Within a minute, both wires had hissed away, like wicks left burning too long.

“I… I don’t know. I sang at the wire, and it broke.” He pulled his hand out of the snow. The welt was still an angry scarlet. “I’m going to have to try from farther away next time.”

“Don’t bother,” a voice echoed from the pillars ahead of them. “It’d only be a matter of time before you got through, and clearly you don’t know a ‘keep out’ sign when you see one.” Erik squinted through the golden haze. A stout man wearing a beard and a leather apron under several layers of fur stood before one of the square stone pillars.

Djalgand Skaldi. And he did not look happy.


28 May, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XIII

Sorry this one's late—the usual excuses, etc.

If you missed them, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


No one batted an eye at Aiar’s pronouncement. Erik heard no shouts of “Impossible!” Emuar’s eyes had gone wide, then narrowed, considering. Ollemar furrowed his brow and looked down at the ground. Finnar ground to a halt and set Erik down, and the rest of the party stopped for a breather.

“You cast great doubt upon our prophecy, and now you mean to expand it?” Ollemar said after a while.

“I could not possibly care less for your metaphysics,” Aiar sniffed. “I am simply extrapolating based on what we have seen. The Shadow that attacked us—”

“It was Remy,” Erik interjected. His legs still felt weak, but he could at least stand up without falling over. He sat down anyway and rubbed at his muscles, hoping that would do some good.

“Indeed. When we fought back with two magics, he did—whatever that was, that trick with the shadows. A desperate move, for it seems he destroyed himself on a gamble to annihilate us. And yet our attack against him did not destroy him, though it did seem to do great damage.”

“Tossed us ass over teakettle,” Kari said.

“Such a way with words,” Aiar said, crouching down upon a fallen log. “He batted aside the first attack, which I gather consisted solely of forest magic. Our second strike combined both Brandrinn and fae magic. It did damage, but did not destroy him. And yet he panicked and sacrificed himself. If that attack did not defeat him, does it seem likely that it would be able to defeat the Shadow that enveloped Bjarheim?”

“It might, if we had time to weave something greater. The shield we wove at the Vângr was immense compared to any other magic I’ve ever seen.”

Aiar shook his head. “I do not think it would work. I think we need an ironspeaker to complete the weaving.”

“Even if that were correct, where are we going to find an ironspeaker?” Emuar tapped his staff irritably on the ground, and Erik saw that the elder Brandrinn kept staring back through the trees toward where Remy had obliterated them. “I thought they were all in Bjarheim. Finnar, you said none escaped.”

“All of them are in Bjarheim… except one.” Finnar paused, considering his words. “Djalgand Skaldi lives in the north. Djalgand the Skysinger, they call him.” He stared around at everyone. “Other names, too.”

“Who is he? Why did he leave Bjarheim?” Erik said.

“I’m not sure. It was before I left the forest. Master Halgrin wouldn’t speak of it, and I only ever heard… rumors.”

“I have heard this name,” Emuar said. “Powerful, and dangerous. He seems to be a man out of legend.”

“He’s real,” Finnar insisted. “And we’ve got to find him.”

Aiar snorted. “Presumably you have a better lead than simply ‘north.’ The north is quite vast, you know.”

“He lives somewhere in the… the Styggen.”

Emuar jerked upright. “Are you insane?”

“That’s what Halgrin told me! I wasn’t about to call the man a liar to his face. And anyway, what choice do we have?”

Erik blinked. “What’s the Styggen?” He looked around. All the grown-ups looked sick, or angry, or frightened.

Finnar seemed to be grasping for words. No one wanted to speak. Finally Aiar came and sat next to Erik. “The Styggen is a frozen waste in the north.”

“What’s so scary about that? And why would this Djalgand want to live there?”

“What’s scary about it is that the Styggen used to be a paradise. Well, as paradisiacal as the frozen north can get. There was a war there, centuries ago, a war of magic. Even before my time, which gives you some idea. Besides its general inhospitability, the whole place is considered cursed.” He eyed Emuar. “I will not speculate on the intelligence of any man who gives such rumors credence.”

The Brandrinn ignored him. “If this ironspeaker is in the Styggen… I would wonder how he was still alive.”

“Well if he is, we’ve got to find him,” Erik demanded. “Why are we just sitting around here?”

They reached the edge of the forest two days later. There they found a small farming community nestled against the forest’s edge, spilling out into the plains beyond. These folk knew the Brandrinn, and were willing to help feed and house the Bjarheimers for a while. Kari would be remaining here along with her parents, Sannfred told Erik. Gaelle had hustled her away in the confusion of their arrival in what passed for the town’s square. Erik tried to argue but Sannfred turned and stalked away, and then Finnar was suddenly dragging Erik in the other direction.

They found the Brandrinn gathered on the road leading back toward the forest. Aiar stood near them, but distinctly apart, eyeing the men coolly. Even after all that had happened, the fae still did not seem to quite trust the woodsmen.

“We cannot leave the forest for long,” Emuar said once Erik and Finnar arrived. Erik still kept glancing back, hoping Kari had somehow escaped, but there was no sign of her.

Finnar smacked him on the shoulder. “Pay attention.” Erik grumbled and turned around.

“We’ve been tied to the forest for years. Decades, in some cases,” Emuar went on. “To leave the forest for long would drive us mad.” He looked at Ollemar. “Except you, brother. You are still young.”

Ollemar ducked his head. “I will travel with them?”

“Yes. Once you find this ironspeaker—if you find him—go to Bjarheim and… help them.”

“What about you? The prophecy says that Odinson will bind all of us. If you are here—”

“I know what it says! Let the prophecy worry about itself.” Emuar tapped his staff irritably upon the dirt. “It matters not, unless you find the ironspeaker.”

“We will,” Finnar said. “Aiar, will you accompany us?”

“Indeed,” the fae said, tilting his chin up but keeping his gaze steady on Erik. “Someone has to keep the boy from blowing himself up.”

Emuar snorted. “Then it is settled. Ollemar, and Finnar, and the fae will escort the boy north to find the ironspeaker.”

“Just four of us?” Erik said, nervous. “What if the Shadow attacks again?”

“More warm bodies will do you no good,” Emuar said. “Your magic will be all that can protect you. And from what I have seen, you are quite well-prepared on that front.”

“Horses would be welcomed,” Finnar said, almost absently. “It’s a long way to the Styggen.”

Emuar snorted. “Has city life made you soft? Your feet were good enough when you were with us in the forest.”

“I am not in the forest, and my concern is not for my feet. My concern is for time.”

Emuar shrugged. “The farmers do not have beasts to spare.”

That put an end to the conversation. The Brandrinn had gathered together what amounted to a week’s worth of provisions for Erik, Finnar, and Ollemar. Aiar insisted that he did not need anything, triggering some skeptical looks from the Brandrinn, but they weren’t about to go out of their way to help a fae who didn’t want it.

It was nearing evening by this point, so Erik and Finnar were sent to sleep in a nearby barn. Ollemar returned to the forest for the night, promising to return at dawn. Aiar showed up not long after Erik and Finnar had lain down to sleep, saying that he preferred the indoors. He burrowed under some hay and went silent.

Erik could not keep his eyes closed, even though it was dark. “Da?” he asked softly, after several minutes of listening to cows snoring.

“Hm?” Finnar sounded sleepy, but Erik’s Da slept like a rock. He wouldn’t have replied if he actually was asleep.

“Emuar said that Brandrinn can’t leave the forest or they go mad. How did you leave?”

It was so long before Finnar replied that Erik thought he might have fallen asleep. But finally his Da sat up and stared at him in the darkness. There was barely enough reflected starlight to make out Finnar’s silhouette against the wall. “I left because I wasn’t any use to them any more. I… lost my magic.”

“How? I didn’t know that was possible.”

“That’s a story for when you’re older, lad.”

“How much older do I need to be? We’re being chased by the Shadow! Isn’t that enough?” Erik could tell he was glowering, not that Finnar would be able to see it. “I’m not afraid.”

“I’m not worried ’bout scaring you, boy. You just ain’t had the experience to understand it. Now sleep,” he said, and it was clearly final.

Ollemar returned at dawn, as promised, and after a quick breakfast, courtesy of the farmwife whose barn they’d slept in, they were on the north road. The air was still, and the dust they kicked up lingered long behind them. Erik looked back after a few minutes; the scattered farmhouses were barely visible.

It was still summer, but in the north, summer is a threadbare thing. Erik savored the warm sunlight on his neck and arms, until pale clouds swept in and dulled everything. The pack he carried was the smallest of the four, of course, but it felt like it was dragging him back. He resolved not to complain, or even to stop unless the others did. Sure, he could use magic; that wouldn’t stop his Da from commenting if Erik showed that he couldn’t even walk a few miles with a pack. “How far is it to the Styggen?” he asked.

“A week at least, afoot,” Finnar said. “Horses would save us some days, and a lot o’ strain on our feet.”

Aiar snorted, but said nothing. He’d been quiet all morning, perhaps mulling something over. Erik decided that, as their party numbered only four, they’d best get used to one another’s company. “Could you teach me something this morning?” he asked the fae.

Aiar turned to stare at Erik without slowing his pace. “Yes, I suppose I could. Our adventure in the forest seems to have given you some experience. I still would like to know how you made that shield so easily, just before Remy annihilated everything.”

Erik shrugged. “I dunno. It just came to me, like it was obvious. I sort of remember…” He held out a hand and waggled it, bouncing the violet ball around as he focused on the methar. A tiny, feeble simulacrum of the shield appeared above his hand, then dissipated when he tripped on a rock and stumbled. Embarrassed, he added, “And it wasn’t easy. It nearly drained the life out of me.”

“Surely you must have noticed the threads.”

“Threads?” When Aiar said nothing, Erik thought about it. Threads? The fae magic he’d woven, and seen woven… it seemed to manifest as cords of violet light writhing in the air. He could weave such a cord now, even if it would amount to nothing and dissipate when he let it go. Making the magic last, that was another trick he didn’t understand yet.

He stared at the cord. It wobbled and snapped, like a discarded snakeskin twisting in the wind. How was he supposed to examine it if it wouldn’t stop moving? His pack felt heavier by the step; that wasn’t helping his concentration any either.

He tried grabbing at it with his hand, and it simply slithered away, as if repelled by his touch. Stop moving, damn you, he thought at it—and it did, freezing in midair.

Then something slipped, and it started moving again. “I—did you see that? I felt like I was holding it still with… with my mind,” he finished.

“You were, but your grasp is weak. You must practice.”

“That thing, was that a thread?”

“No. A line of magic that bright is many threads, all bound together. You will have to examine them much in order to discern the threads. Working with fae magic is a matter of weaving the threads and bending them to your will.” Aiar sighed. “It normally takes years to master, but I suspect you will have it in a day or two.”

“Don’t give the boy a big head,” Finnar warned.

“As your son, I believe he is already doomed to such a fate,” Aiar said, and laughed when Finnar scowled at him.

Erik continued poking at the cords and trying to make out the individual threads as they walked. The farmland around them didn’t last long; by afternoon the land had grown bumpy, and there were hills on the horizon ahead. When the sun set, they made camp by the side of the road. Erik had not expected much traffic, but he realized that they hadn’t seen anyone since leaving the farms that morning. He didn’t care much; he was just so relieved to put his pack down.

Ollemar was pacing nervously as Finnar stoked up a campfire. “Is something wrong?” Erik asked the young Brandrinn.

As was his habit, Ollemar repeatedly tapped his staff on the ground. He looked as if he was restraining himself from smashing something. “I have not been this far from the forest in some years,” he said finally, not looking at Erik. In fact he was staring back along the road. The forest proper was far out of sight; there were scattered trees here and there, a copse of gumleaf a hundred yards down the road.

“You’ll be all right,” Erik said, not being able to think of much else. “Can you teach me something?” He’d asked Aiar earlier; it was only fair.

Ollemar demurred at first, so Erik pestered him. Eventually the Brandrinn squatted down beside Erik. “You have felt the flow of magic. But all magic stems from life. With practice, you will be able to sense life all around you. It is one of the most critical skills of a Brandrinn.”

“Is it a kind of magic?”

Ollemar shook his head. “There is no weaving involved, no pattern. It is simply something you sense, as if you can hear it, see it, even with your eyes closed.” Ollemar shut his own eyes to demonstrate. “The fae is there.” He pointed, with perfect accuracy. “Your father, there.” Again. “And…” He sprang to his feet and whirled about, staff held parallel to the ground, ready to strike. “Someone is out there.”

Erik leapt up, and in a moment both Finnar and Aiar were beside him. There was someone out on the road, looming in the darkness; he could hear their feet scuffing the dirt and pebbles. “Who is that?” he shouted.

“It’s me, you idiots,” Kari’s voice came back. Erik’s jaw dropped. Twilight silhouetted her, and Erik realized that he’d mistaken her for someone much larger due to the pack she wore. She finally came in range of the campfire, and, breathing hard, dropped her pack on the ground.

“Girl, what in the world are you doing here? Do your parents know you’ve come?” Finnar demanded.

“By now, probably. My Da wouldn’t have let me go if he’d known, would he?”

“You foolish girl, your parents are probably terrified!”

Kari stared at Finnar as if he’d said something particularly stupid. “I left them a note. They know where I am.” She came over to Erik and, with no warning, punched him in the arm. “That’s for going without me.”

“What?! I didn’t know you’d run away!”

She smirked at him.

“…but I suppose I should have guessed, huh?”

A real smile finally flitted across her lips. “Yeah. Dummy.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.

Aiar had no particular care for Kari, but the fae had watched this all with amusement. “And what if your father comes looking for you?” he wondered aloud.

“Then I’ll tell him to go stuff himself again,” she said.

“We’re not going to take her back to her Da, are we?” Erik asked.

“We’d have to waste a whole day backtracking, and another whole day returning to this very spot,” Aiar pointed out. “Hardly efficient.” He glanced at Kari’s pack. “She seems well-supplied.”

Finnar threw his hands up. “Fine. But if you cause us trouble, girl, I’ll stripe your hide from here to Ragnarok, and your father’ll likely thank me for it.”

Kari flipped her hair at him and went over to the fire. Erik exchanged glances with the other men, then went to sit next to Kari.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “But it’s going to be dangerous.”

She smirked at him again. “You think I’d rather sit in a farmhouse for a month with my family? They were gonna put us all to work around the farm. ‘No freeloaders,’ the farmwife said.”

“It’s not a prison sentence.”

She laughed. “It is, compared to going off on an adventure like you are.”

Erik scratched at the dirt with his boot. “I’m startin’ to think that adventures aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Wouldn’t you rather be home safe in Bjarheim?”

For the first time that evening, the smirk disappeared from her face. “I… Of course I would.”

Erik glanced off to the north. The sky was deep azure now, the stars revealing themselves. “We’ve got a long way to go. And a long way back before we can save Bjarheim. I hope…”

“Hope what?”

He met her eyes again. “That there’s something left to save.”


15 May, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XII

If you missed them, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:
Part I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI


“Odin’s beard!” Kari said. Erik started, not realizing she’d come to his side. “Is that…?”

“Yeah. With friends. What happened to him?”

“This shield won’t hold forever!” Emuar shouted at them.

“Maybe we can weave something else?” Ollemar said. He’d taken up station on Erik’s other side, holding out his staff nervously, as if he might somehow ward off the attack.

“I don’t know how to weave anything,” Erik protested. “But I can give you my strength.”

“Don’t overdo it,” said Finnar, coming up behind Erik. “If you drain your reserves—either of you—someone might have to carry you, and that’ll make things harder.”

Ollemar nodded tightly. Erik gulped and held out his hand again, creating the green orb. He so badly wanted to learn how to wield magic himself, rather than just being a passive vessel for those with more experience—but when would he ever have time, with this constant assault? Aiar and Ollemar had barely been able to teach him anything. He’d stumbled across one thing or another, but none of it made any sense.

Ollemar wove something different this time, something sharp and pointed. He worked frantically, Erik could tell, racing against the Shadow’s assault. The shield over their heads rang time and again as the great dark tendrils slammed into it. Erik thought he heard a crack, and looked up.

Part of the shield had begun to unravel.

“Hurry!” Emuar said, needlessly, as if Erik and Ollemar weren’t doing all they could.

Ollemar had fashioned something in the shape of a cone, but tapered at the broad end. It was crude, with none of the beauty and grace of the shields they’d woven. Ollemar flung it down at the ground, and it slipped into the earth, not even disturbing the soil.

“What was that?” Erik asked. Before Ollemar could reply, the arrow—or whatever it was—erupted from the earth, halfway between the shield and Remy. It arced through the air, spitting off green sparks, and dove toward Remy and the other ghostly forms around him.

One of the shadowy tendrils whipped at the arrow. The arrow cracked and split into a shower of whirling emerald fragments, which dissipated and vanished in an eyeblink. The shadowy tendril had vanished as well, but another replaced it a moment later.

But Remy’s assault had slowed. Slightly. After only a few seconds’ pause, the tendrils came again, attacking once more.

“I don’t think that did much,” Erik said. “We need to combine the magics. Aiar, help him!”

The fae grimaced. “I’ve never made such a thing. Magic of the arcane does not—”

“Shut up and do it!” Erik shouted. “We don’t have time!”

Aiar looked about ready to split bark with his teeth. Nonetheless, he turned away from Erik and began to draw violet lines in the air. Erik pushed his own power to supply Aiar, and Ollemar, who looked frazzled, began to build another arrow.

Aiar strengthened it with his own magic, until it was a solid amber mass; the green and violet energies had become so intertwined that Erik almost couldn’t tell them apart.

Erik glanced back nervously. The other Brandrinn had, perhaps instinctively, surrounded the Bjarheimers. What protection they could give if the Shadow broke through, Erik had no idea. Sannfred Frey clutched his children while Gaelle looked like she would pound Remy with her fists if she got the chance. They all seemed terrified.

Erik glanced at the arrow again. It was completely solid now. Ollemar prodded it with his staff, and it glided effortlessly along. With a flick of the wrist the Brandrinn sent it hurtling toward Remy.

Another dark tendril slashed at it, but this time the arrow continued on, unimpeded, while the tendril vanished. Erik saw Remy’s dark form scrambling to do something, and then—

Everything went green and purple. Erik felt thumps all along his body, and then one final crash as he hit the ground, dizzy. He was lying on someone. Emuar. The light had changed all around them.

The shield was gone.

“We’ve—” Erik wobbled as he tried to stand up. His ears were ringing, and he could barely hear his own voice. Everyone had been knocked askew; he saw blood here and there. The Brandrinn sprang to their feet almost at once, followed shortly by the Bjarheimers. “We’ve got to… got to get the shield back,” he said to the air.

No one replied. He looked at the forest. The shadowy tendrils were gone; a number of trees near where Remy had stood had been blasted to shards, leaving only jagged stumps behind. There was a great blue gap in the canopy overhead. It was the most sky Erik had seen in days.

There was something moving over there. Slowly, wretchedly, a pale hand reached up over a shattered pine trunk. The arm it was attached to came into view, followed by Remy Thurain’s face, streaked with blood and fury.

The other shapes, the ghoulish red eyes that had been beside him, were gone. The shadowy fog had vanished. Remy said something, his mouth moving, but Erik couldn’t hear anything. Maybe he was too far away; maybe he was muttering to himself.

Erik’s companions all watched Remy, unsure if he would try to attack again. Erik thought about making another shield, but Ollemar was leaning heavily on his staff, and Aiar blinked at the sky, looking confused and distracted.

“We should get out of here,” someone said through the haze in Erik’s ears. Erik recognized Kari’s voice. She was unharmed, blessedly, miraculously.

Remy then emitted a great wail, and all the shadows in the forest began to move. Slowly they slithered away from their rightful places and crawled along toward the cleft where Remy stood. Erik’s own shadow detached itself like a dried scab peeling away, and crept toward Remy.

Remy didn’t move. As the various shadows drew close to him, he seemed to grow darker, as if the sun could no longer touch him. Erik sensed a terrible darkness emanating from him. Aiar and all the Brandrinn stiffened, recoiling.

“The girl is right. Go. NOW!” Emuar turned and sprinted away from Remy. No one else had to be encouraged. In seconds, the entire party was running hell for leather in the opposite direction.

A torrent of shadows slid along the ground past them, and toward Remy. Not everyone in the party could move at speed; Sannfred Fray, the biggest and heaviest among the Bjarheimers, fell behind, while the Brandrinn kept in the lead. Ilvha, perhaps driven by a mother’s fierce instincts, was right behind them.

Kari could easily have kept pace with the Brandrinn, but she slowed to keep pace with her father. Erik did too. Aiar had recovered from his trance; with his long legs and loping stride, he could easily have taken the lead, but he stuck in the middle of the pack, exhorting the slower folk to keep up.

The shadows beneath their feet moved ever faster. Erik felt a great darkness growing behind them. He chanced a look back—and tripped, banging his head on the ground. Something sharp stabbed his cheek and he screamed.

Someone lifted him in strong arms—Finnar Rain. His Da slung Erik over his shoulder and bowled onward. Despite the jarring bounces and the pain in his face, the terrifying sense that the Shadow was about to engulf them all grew ever stronger. Erik tried to look up; the Brandrinn had pulled far enough ahead that he could barely see Emuar in their lead.

“No…” he muttered. He knew what was coming. He could taste it, smell it. Where? Where do we go?… There, there it was! “To the… into the… there…” He pointed feebly. “Into… th… that creek…”

Finnar turned his head a little. “What? What are you saying, boy?”

“We… have to…” Get into the creek, don’t you see? It was the only place they’d be safe. “There. Into… the creek!

Finnar finally caught on. “Hey! Over there!” he waved frantically at the Brandrinn up ahead. Some of them slowed and turned to look. Finnar leapt over a rock and slid down the sloping earth toward a little rivulet of water that had dug something of a trench here. It wasn’t all that deep, but it would be enough… it would have to…

Finnar put Erik down as the others followed him into the trench. The banks of the creek angled up sharply, a good seven or eight feet above their heads.

“How is this supposed to protect us?” Emuar said, leaping lightly down the opposing bank and coming to land next to Erik.

Erik sat up, wiping at the pain on his face. His whole hand came away bloody. Not now. “A… shield… I need to make a shield…”

Emuar looked at Ollemar, who’d alighted next to him. “We can try, but we’re getting tired, boy—”

“No—time—” When they did it, they were so slow. Erik had to do it. “I… I have to.” He pulled the methar and the Seed out of his mind, and pushed them together before him. Together, they would be strong. Strong enough… to save them… His strength was slipping away…

“You can’t!” Aiar said. He crouched down next to Erik. “You’re wounded, and you don’t know how to use magic properly yet—”

But he could see it now. The twin globes of energy pulsing before him, the green and violet, were just tools. He started pushing them together, wrapping them around each other, drawing them out into tangled skeins, reinforcing the web. He felt like a child, finger-painting with mud on the cobbles, random patterns that somehow had meaning… A voice, calling out, lilting in the wind… His mother, entreating him to come inside, dear, it’s getting dark out there…

The shield spun upward and settled over the creek. Everyone crouched beneath it. Erik felt his last strength fall away.

The forest canopy, up above the shield, disappeared into a uniform gray mist that grew darker and darker. Erik lay back beside the creek, fighting to keep his eyes open, as he watched it. There came a colossal roar, as if Odin had breathed his great wrath onto the land. The gray mist vanished, leaving only blue sky and bright sun. Erik closed his eyes and smiled at the warmth on his face.

When his eyes blinked open, the sky was still blue above, but a darker shade, as if evening had begun to contemplate its approach. The sun was glaring at him out of the corner of his eye. There were no leaves or branches visible above; and the shield he’d woven was gone.

He sat up into a coughing fit; someone pushed a waterskin to his lips and he drank, not knowing or caring where it had come from. It tasted sweeter than anything he’d ever had.

Erik looked around. Everyone was still there; Aiar stared dubiously at him, while Ollemar and the other Brandrinn crouched a short distance away, with something in their eyes that… Fear? Why would they fear him? He didn’t see Emuar among them. Or Finnar.

The Bjarheimers sat across the creek in a circle, looking weary and frightened. The Frays were all huddled together, gnawing on some sort of jerky, while Ilvha nursed her babe. Ludwin and Cesja lay in the grass, holding one another, possibly asleep. Thurgald watched outward, nervously fingering a stick he’d sharpened to a point.

“What happened?” Erik mumbled past the cotton. He took another swig from the waterskin, then realized with a start why the sky was so blue.

All the trees were gone. All of them.

Kari cradled the waterskin beside him. “We don’t know what happened. Emuar and your Da are out looking.”

Erik nodded. He wanted to go find them, but they’d come back soon. Even after sleeping, he felt so weary…

There was a scrape of dirt. Erik looked up the bank to see his father skidding down it, somehow keeping his huge bulk balanced as he slid down. Emuar followed, stepping lightly. “Good, you’re awake,” Finnar said. “You’d better come look.”

Erik tried to stand but couldn’t; his legs gave out from under him, and he landed hard on his bottom. He tried again, to no avail. He was too tired to be frustrated, but why wouldn’t his legs work? And his face hurt, too. He belatedly recalled falling, a stabbing pain… He reached up and touched it. There was a trickle of blood still. He wiped it on his shirt and resolved to ignore it for now.

Finnar grunted and picked him up. “You need rest, but… after.” He lurched back up the bank, to the forest floor above.

Well, to what had been the forest floor. There were no standing trees for a stone’s throw in any direction. Farther, in some cases. A number of charred trunks lay flat on the ground, with jagged ends where they’d been torn from their roots. The narrow, upper ends were black and blasted, and not a single leaf or needle remained intact.

Finnar carried him along some distance, and Erik started when he recognized the cleft in the land where Remy had been standing. It was a crater, deeper than Erik was tall, and wide enough that Erik probably couldn’t have thrown a pebble across it. The dead, blasted trees radiated outward from it like a sunburst.

“What did he do?” Erik asked, after he’d been staring at the crater for several minutes.

Emuar was nervously stalking around, although there was no way anything could be hiding out here. All available cover had been blown to smithereens. “The Shadow’s magic is not well-understood,” Emuar said. “We… we do not truly know what it is capable of.”

“Did you see how he drew the shadows to him?” Finnar said. “I say he was using their power, to do… this. Whatever it is.”

“But he killed himself?” Erik looked hard at the deepest part of the crater. There was nothing standing there; nothing to indicate that Remy might have survived. Good riddance. “Why would he do that?”

“Maybe he thought he could stop you. But what you did… You saved us all.” Emuar gave a cold stare at Erik. “If the Shadow thinks you’re so important that it will sacrifice such a powerful agent, then you are definitely Odinson.”

“Enough of that,” Finnar snapped. “The boy’s got enough on his mind already.” He turned and carried Erik back toward the creek.

The land all around it was scarred and blasted; but the creek itself, the part that had been under the shield he’d woven, looked untouched. The creek was drying out; whatever had fed it had been destroyed by Remy’s explosion. They wouldn’t be able to stay here long.

Emuar and Finnar got everyone up and moving again. Erik’s legs were still wobbly, so he rode on his Da’s back.

As vast as the devastation was, they reached its edge in a few minutes’ walk, and began to pass between trees that, while charred and pitted on the side facing the explosion, were still standing. “That particular threat is, for the moment, gone.” Emuar rubbed his chin as they walked. “I do not expect the Shadow to stop, though.”

“We should return to Bjarheim,” Finnar said. “We must face the Shadow there, and retake the city.”

Aiar snorted. “Despite young Erik’s power, it seems unlikely that he will be ready to face the Shadow again any time soon.” He regarded Erik sidelong. “Despite my vast knowledge, I have not studied your myths much. Odin is your chief deity, yes?”

“Yeah. Odin Allfather,” Erik said. “He rules Asgard from his great hall, Valhalla.”

“And he has three sons: Thor, Baldur, and Váli.”

“Yes. Thor is the greatest of all warriors, Baldur is the wisest of all the gods, and Váli is the stealthiest and most cunning.”

Aiar nodded. He no longer looked at Erik, but stared up at the trees. “There are only three known magics. There’s fae magic, of course, and the Brandrinn’s forest magic.” Erik heard only a slight note of disdain there. Aiar had made progress. Maybe working magic alongside Ollemar had begun to convince Aiar of the Brandrinn’s value. “And then there’s the song-magic of the ironspeakers.”

“What are you on about?” Finnar said. He was beginning to breathe heavily, carrying Erik all this way, but Erik knew his Da would never admit to fatigue.

“Perhaps it is just a coincidence—though at my age you stop dismissing things so easily. Baldur the wise, a deity who studies and thinks. Reminiscent of the fae, perhaps.”

“Do not think to compare yourself to the gods,” Emuar warned.

Aiar flicked a hand at him. “Then we have Váli, the sneaky and cunning. A hunter, as I recall. That makes me think of the Brandrinn.”

All other conversation had stopped, and everyone listened raptly. What is he getting at? Erik wondered.

“Thor, a deity of might, yes? I believe he is said to summon the very lightning to strike down his enemies. Did you know that ironspeakers use lightning in their magic? They guide it with their songs.”

Erik stared at Aiar. “Thor sings a battle hymn to guide his strikes true.”

Aiar turned to Emuar. “Brandrinn, your prophecy is wrong. Or rather, it doesn’t go far enough. Erik is not a child of two magics. He is going to unite all three.


08 May, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XI

If you missed them, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:
Part I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X


They ate and slept and rose. The sun still shone, the trees still stood. The Shadow had not yet penetrated the Vângr. Erik, Finnar, Aiar, and the Brandrinn gathered together in council. Kari came and sat next to Erik, ignoring the uneasy stares of the menfolk.

“Whoever’s out there is mighty powerful,” Finnar said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get past them, or stop them.”

“I do not know if we Brandrinn are up to the task,” Emuar said. His hostility from the previous day had faded. Now, Erik thought, he just looked worried.

Emuar looked to Erik. “Your power, combined with ours, may be the only way.”

“Could you teach us how to do what you did?” Ollemar asked.

Erik shrugged at him. “I haven’t the slightest idea what I did. I just stood there while you did the work.”

Ollemar frowned. “I wove the shield, but I did not draw the fae magic into it. That came from you.”

“But I don’t know how!” Erik protested, frustrated at their insistence that he was somehow responsible for it.

“Calm, my boy,” Finnar said. “It may be that your magic does what’s needed, without you taking a hand in it.”

“That’s hardly reassuring,” Aiar said. “I should not like to rely on ‘what’s needed’ happening of its own accord.”

“Have you got a better idea?” Finnar asked.

“In fact I have.” He narrowed his eyes at Erik, considering. “That shield you wove yesterday—”

“That Ollemar wove,” Erik insisted.

“Yes, yes. Such a shield could be woven smaller, I presume, to protect people rather than trees.” He quirked an eyebrow at Ollemar.

“I… Yes, it could, I suppose.”

“And it could move with those people?”

Ollemar blinked. “Uh…”

“Such a thing has not been done,” Emuar interjected. “It is im—” He cut himself off. “Here I am, speaking of the impossible, when it sits before me.” His eyes bore into Erik.

“It’s worth a shot,” Kari said.

Finnar grunted and stood up. “I don’t see why not.”

“Now?” Erik asked. This was all moving very quickly. But he stood up anyway.

“Ollemar, begin,” Emuar said.

“Do you not wish to do this yourself?” Ollemar asked. “You are the eldest—”

“I will observe.” Emuar crossed his arms firmly. “Begin.”

Ollemar gulped and turned to Erik. Erik girded himself, and held out his hand, producing two tiny balls of green and violet light. They floated calmly before him.

Ollemar began to wave his staff again, but in smaller, more contained patterns. The shield took form, emitting light so intense that it competed with the sun. Then it subdued, evolving into the crystalline tapestry they’d seen the day before. Ollemar went slower this time, concentrating, sweat beading on his forehead. Erik had time to examine the shield, tracing its intricate patterns in and around and through one another.

“I can’t…” Ollemar grunted and dropped to one knee, supporting himself with his runestaff. The shield floated there, unfinished; its edges began slowly unravelling. Erik tried to will it to hold place, but it was too complex. He could sense the methar in his mind, and the Seed the Brandrinn spoke of, but neither seemed to want to help him. The shield slowly dissipated until it was nothing.

“I can’t make it small enough,” Ollemar said. “It needs to be small enough to contain us, so that the Shadow can’t enter. All I can do is make it slightly curved.”

Aiar strode forward suddenly. “I will assist.”

Some of the Brandrinn snorted. “How?” Emuar said. “You cannot wield both magics, the way this boy can.”

“I have been studying magic longer than the lot of you have been alive, combined,” Aiar said. He turned to Ollemar. “Begin again, when you are ready.”

Ollemar squinted at Aiar, then nodded. He stood and began to weave again. Erik felt the immense power of the fae and Brandrinn magics drawing forth from him, and watched the flows coalesce once more.

But this time Aiar reached his hands out and began to tug here and there at the violet tendrils. “I cannot see the Brandrinn’s magic, directly, but I can tell where it is,” he said.

“How?” Emuar asked, disbelieving.

“By seeing where the fae magic is not. Erik, do you see any gaps in the weaving?”

“Uh… no,” Erik said, realizing what Aiar was getting at. “It’s one solid piece.”

“And thus if I pull like this…” Aiar twisted one violet tendril around his finger and tugged sharply. Several other tendrils jerked toward it; Erik saw the shield buckle slightly, and alarm rose in his throat.

“Wait, no!” he shouted, and reached a hand out.

Where it touched the shield, the violet tendrils and green shoots both slid aside to make room. Ollemar gasped, and Aiar blinked in surprise. “What’s it doing?” Erik said.

“Responding to you. It seems you could do the weaving yourself, if you so chose.”

“But I don’t—”

“—know how, yes, we’ve heard that more than enough times. Still, it is something to remember. Now please, let me work.” Aiar gently pushed Erik away from the shield. He began to tug again, causing the violet tendrils to curve. This made the shield buckle slightly as before, but now Erik watched and waited. The shield began to repair itself, the lines of green light moving to fill in the gaps the violet left behind. With agonizing slowness, the shield started to curve in on itself.

“It needs to be bigger,” Ollemar said, “or it’ll only fit one or two people. Erik, can you give more strength to it?”

“I can’t—” He stopped. No, no more ‘I can’t,’ he told himself. “I’ll try.” But how? He wasn’t doing anything to make the energy flow forth from him. Ollemar and Aiar were drawing it out with their manipulations.

What about the methar? That little node of violet energy in his mind was the source of all this immense magic that floated in the air before him. Perhaps if he…

There was a snap and Erik was thrown backward, onto his rear. The shield evaporated in an instant, exploding in a cascade of emerald and violet light. “Um,” Erik said, his ears ringing. He looked around; everyone else seemed to have been knocked askew as well.

“I grow tired of asking this,” Aiar said, “but what did you do?”

“I tried to… open the methar.” Erik scratched his chin, wondering. “I realized that it… it felt like it was closed.”

“Then let us try again. Whatever you did, do it more slowly.”

Erik waited until Ollemar had drawn the shield in the air again. The young Brandrinn was looking fatigued, but they couldn’t stop now. The shield they’d made yesterday, that had reinforced the trees, still shone strongly when Erik looked at it. Erik could feel the Shadow testing it, probing it, trying to find weakness. It hadn’t, yet… but it was making progress, he realized. It was only a matter of time.

Erik looked at the shield, made of fae and Brandrinn magic. It hung there, waiting. Erik reached for the methar again. Last time he’d tugged sharply at it, tearing it open in some indefinable way. Ollemar and Aiar had been overwhelmed by it, and the whole weaving had collapsed. This time he’d go more slowly.

He slid a mere fragment of thought into it, and began to pry it open, as gently as he could. He could sense the power lurking behind it, and it terrified him, but he couldn’t stop now. Aiar and Ollemar were both watching him, waiting, their hands held out to corral the shield.

The methar began to glow more brightly in his mind. Erik stopped and waited. Things were much as before, but now there was more energy flowing forth. Ollemar yelped. “It’s fighting me!”

Aiar began waving his hands frantically. “Too much… wait, no, I’ve got it. By the arcane! How can you wield so much strength?” he said to Erik.

Erik didn’t answer. He kept his focus on the methar, worried that it would fly open and ruin the whole thing again. Aiar and Ollemar kept working. Ollemar grew the shield ever larger, and Aiar bent it into a curve, folding down the upper edges so that it was shaped like a large, round cake.

At one point Erik’s grip on the methar slipped and a burst of violet energy roared forth, blasting apart one edge of the shield. Aiar grunted and yanked all the threads in that part together, forming a sort of net, to catch the fraying ends and stop the whole thing from flying apart.

Soon, in mere minutes, the shield had grown tall enough and wide enough to encompass them all.

“There are… loose ends…” Aiar huffed. He’d almost doubled over, his hands weaving slower and slower. Ollemar, too, looked about to collapse.

“They need help!” Erik shouted at the other Brandrinn, who had been watching curiously but had made no move to assist.

Emuar glared at Erik. “Do not tell us how to use our own magic,” he said.

“Ollemar’s about to fall on his face! Shore him up or you’re wasting all our time!” Erik shouted. He thought he saw his Da crack a smile.

Emuar tsked and stepped forward, wary. He raised his own staff and touched it to Ollemar’s. The younger Brandrinn fell to his knees and toppled onto his side, and the shield wobbled at the transition, but it held. Emuar blinked at it. “I… I don’t know what to do.”

“Just hold it,” Aiar muttered through gritted teeth. “I’ve… almost… There!” he shouted, and fell to his knees, gasping in the warm morning air. “It should hold. No, it will hold.”

Erik pushed the methar shut, realizing that he’d suffered his own fatigue from concentrating on it. Was magic always so immense and tedious to deal with? He’d seen Aiar work quick spells with no more than a flick of the wrist, but this shield had taken a great deal out of them all. Perhaps it was for the best that various kinds of magic weren’t ordinarily used together.

Emuar dragged his staff around, slowly moving the enormous shield. All the Frays and the other Bjarheimers were standing or sitting off to one side, looking bored. None of them could see a lick of the magic, of course. “What’s going on now?” Sannfred Fray muttered.

“Now, we’re going to get out of here,” Erik said. “We’ve made a shield, one that we can all fit into, and we can use it to leave here and get away from the Shadow. They won’t be able to break it, not easily.”

“This all sounds like nonsense,” Thora said. It was the first she’d talked that day. “Whoever’s out there’s going to kill us. You all know it.”

“You’re free to stay here if you want,” Finnar said. “We’ve got to get out of here and save Bjarheim.”

“Getting all that way with the Shadow chasing us… Doesn’t seem real bright,” Kari said.

“I’d stop them if I knew how,” Erik said. “But they’re really powerful.”

“More than you? Than this?” She shook her head. “I can’t see whatever it is, but as much as you all were grunting and flailing about, it must be something amazing.” She stepped over to him and whispered. “You’re the only one who can stop the Shadow, Erik. I know it.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” he muttered to her. She smiled at him, making his cheeks flush. “Well we need to see whoever it is out there, before we can figure out how to stop them. So let’s get going.” He addressed everyone else. “Everyone, huddle in around Emuar. He’s carrying the shield now. Don’t get more than two armspans from him.”

“To the hells with you all,” Thora said, plopping herself on the ground and looking away.

Ilvha, the young mother, looked torn. “I… my boy… Will it be safe?”

“No,” Finnar Rain said. “The Shadow is trying to kill us. If you stay here, it may follow us instead. Or maybe it will keep trying to break in.”

“We can’t all keep running forever,” Sannfred said. “We’re worn out as it is.”

Gaelle looked up at her husband. “I believe in Erik. You should too.” She nodded at Erik. “We’ll be coming with you.” Sannfred threw his hands up and started muttering angrily to himself, but nodded at Erik.

Thurgald and Ludwin and Cesja agreed to come too. Thora stayed resolutely put on her rear and would not look at any of them. Emuar and the other Brandrinn had no qualms about leaving her behind. Erik, despite her incessant hostility, hoped Thora would be all right.

The Bjarheimers crowded around Emuar, making the Brandrinn look uncomfortable, but he said nothing. The other Brandrinn, and Aiar, arranged themselves in a ring near the edge of the shield, since they could see its extent. Erik and Finnar walked in the front. Finnar couldn’t see the shield, but he stayed by Erik’s side, his huge hand on Erik’s shoulder. Erik had felt that touch before, and it usually meant incipient punishment. Today, in the forest, under attack by the Shadow, it reassured him.

“Let’s go.” They wouldn’t be able to maintain their formation in the tunnel, so instead they went to the far edge of the Vângr. All the Brandrinn save for Emuar came together and raised their staves to touch one of the trees. With a great creak and cracking of wood, it began to twist out of the way, so slowly that it was a good ten minutes before Erik could see anything past it, and another ten until there was enough room for a single person to pass.

This presented a logistical difficulty. Emuar placed himself just adjacent to the gap, so that everyone else could, one by one, pass through it, without leaving the edge of the shield. Erik insisted that everyone else go first, and then followed Emuar, squeezing through the gap. On the other side, everyone was crowded back against the trees, so Emuar pushed through to the first open area he could reach, and let everyone else rearrange themselves.

Erik watched the forest around them. There was no sign of the Shadow here. It had been on the other side of the Vângr; he could still feel it. But it was moving now. It knew they were trying to escape. “It’ll be here soon unless we keep moving,” he said.

Ollemar looked back. “It… it will catch us no matter what. Pray to the Mother that this shield holds.”

“It will,” Erik insisted. “It has to.”

Finnar glanced at his son; Erik only caught a moment of the look, but what he saw of it chilled him.

The Brandrinn took turns holding the shield. It seemed strong enough to maintain its form when none of them were prodding it along with their runestaffs, but no one wanted to take the chance that it would dissipate if left alone.

The trees of the forest were, thankfully, spread far enough apart to make travel relatively easy. It was still slow going, since everyone had to shuffle along at exactly the same speed. There was no room for wandering.

“Where exactly are we going?” Kari asked as the colossal tree-wall of the Vângr disappeared behind them.

Finnar shared a look with Emuar. “Out of the forest.” He gave no more than that. Erik could tell by his clipped tone that Finnar wasn’t feeling particularly forthcoming.

They trod along for a while. Erik began to feel the back of his neck itching. He kept glancing back through the woods, but saw nothing.

After a while they stopped to rest and eat what they could—gathering food proved difficult as well, since the shield frightened away all game, and no one wanted to leave its safety behind. Ollemar and the other Brandrinn gathered what nuts and roots and berries they could find. It was better than nothing, but Erik’s stomach rumbled.

He kept glancing back as they sat, and even when they started moving again. Then he felt a sharp stabbing in his neck, as if something had pierced his skin—but when he reached his hand up, there was no wound, no blood. He looked back. The forest seemed darker, or maybe the canopy here was thicker, or perhaps the sun was just starting to descend?

But the darkness grew faster than he knew it should. He heard a cry and saw that several of the Brandrinn stared back the same way. “It’s coming,” Ollemar said.

Emuar had the shield just now. Everyone turned to look. The darkness had made the furthest trees all but invisible, and it was spreading. A black mist slithered around roots and rocks, creeping up the trunks of the great pines, seeking and probing.

“Let’s hope the shield—” Aiar cut off as the nearest tendril of the Shadow formed itself into a spear and thrust itself at them. Erik flinched as the tendril crashed into the shield, sending waves of sparkling green and violet light coruscating into the air. The tendril ricocheted away, and wavered, looking confused. Then instantly it vanished, and was replaced by another, and another, hammering at the shield.

“The shield isn’t going to hold forever!” Emuar shouted between attacks. “We’ve got to run, or fight!”

Erik peered out past the shield. Amidst the flailing tendrils of black smoke, he saw something man-shaped between the trees. It had wild black hair and wore tattered rags, but Erik could feel immense power radiating from it. Three other, lesser shapes lurked near it, like half-seen ghouls in a dream, their red eyes piercing the fog.

The black shape lifted its head and smiled, and with horror Erik realized that it was Remy Thurain.


01 May, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part X

If you missed it, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


Erik wept into his father’s shirt as Finnar’s strong arms held him close. Erik hadn’t realized it before, but he’d assumed Finnar was dead.

The Brandrinn were all muttering and nodding, their eyes locked on Finnar Rain. He stepped back from Erik, regarded his son with a tight smile, and faced the woodsmen. “Brothers. Is your stewardship ending at last?”

“It is,” Ollemar said. “This boy is the prophesied one.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Finnar said. “Erik, you must have all sorts of questions.”

Erik wiped away his tears and tried to look calm, as if half the group—Kari—wasn’t watching him. “Are you a Brandrinn?” Erik said, realizing that Finnar had spoken to the Brandrinn with great familiarity.

“I was. Once. Brandrinn do not have families. I left when I met your mother. It was difficult. Some have not forgiven me for it.” He was looking at someone; Erik followed his gaze to the dark-skinned Brandrinn, who had shifted his glower from Erik to Finnar. “But I did what I had to do.”

“How did you find us?” Kari said, stepping forward. Somehow she’d never been intimidated by Finnar. Erik took her hand, and she squeezed back without taking her eyes off his Da.

“I was on the far side of Bjarheim. Made it through the wall. Not many escaped.” He shook his head sadly, and sighed. “Went west to the gathering place, and saw your tracks. When I saw you’d entered the forest… I knew you’d end up here.”

“You did not tell your son the prophecy?” the dark-skinned Brandrinn said, skeptical.

“Why would I? You know I never believed it.”

“You should have,” the Brandrinn said.

Finnar grunted. He put a hand on Erik’s shoulder and looked into his son’s eyes. “The Brandrinn are servants of the forest. The forest is the lifeblood of this land. It’s our job to protect it. But the prophecy says that the Mother’s need for us would come to an end, some day. It makes sense, I suppose. Nothing lasts forever.” Like Bjarheim, Erik thought.

Finnar went on. “The prophecy speaks of a child of two magics, who would bring the Brandrinn together in the hour of greatest need. He would use us to defeat a great evil. We would be consumed in doing so. The prophecy never made sense to me. You can’t have two magics.”

“Well, I do.” Erik held out his hand and made a purple glow, and then a green one. Harmless, tiny lights, but somehow they still made all the Brandrinn—even Finnar—draw back a little.

“You do.” There was something tight in Finnar’s voice. Pride? Could Finnar actually be proud of Erik?

And if so, for what? For stumbling around and not getting killed? Some accomplishment.

“What about this Odinson thing?”

“That part I still think absurd,” Finnar said, glaring at the other Brandrinn. “You remember the story of Odin’s three sons, yes?”

“Remember? Those were my favorite, when—when I was little.” It was the only time Erik had ever felt close to Finnar. His Da would come in at bedtime and tell Erik tales of Thor, Baldur, and Váli, the mighty sons of Odin.

Finnar shook his head. “Not the individual stories. The story about all three brothers.”

Erik gulped. He remembered.

“What story?” Kari said. “Father never told me that one.”

“They’re no stories for girls,” Sannfred Fray said abruptly.

“Your girl’s tougher than most o’ the boys I’ve ever seen,” Finnar snapped at him. “Now hush.” He turned back to Erik. “Do you want to tell it?”

Erik looked at Kari, and nodded. “I’ll try. Um… Odin had three sons. One day, they came into Valhalla to find Odin weeping. Thor asked, ‘Why do you weep, father?’

“Odin said, ‘I weep for all the warriors who were not brave enough, and suffer after death in Niflheim. Will you go and save them?’

“Baldur said, ‘We will, father.’ Thor and Baldur and Váli left Valhalla, and left Asgard, and traveled to Niflheim. They reached the great gate of Niflheim, with its door of coldest ice. They pounded on the door, Thor with his hammer, and Baldur with his staff, and Váli with his bow, and demanded entrance.

“The great dragon Nithogg loomed over the gate. He said, ‘Why do you strike my door?’

“Thor shouted, ‘Odin Allfather has sent us to retrieve the worthy souls of warriors gone astray.’

“Nithogg said, ‘Odin Allfather has no dominion here. Begone.’

“Thor scowled at Nithogg, and struck at the frozen door with all his might. But even his great hammer could not shatter it.

“Baldur scoffed at Nithogg, and attempted to pick the lock on the gate. But even with his great wisdom and knowledge, he could not open it.

“Váli glowered at Nithogg, and attempted to vault the gate. But even with his great agility, the gate was too high, and he could not hurdle it.

“Nithogg laughed. He said, ‘You are weak,’ and retreated into his domain, to torture the souls of warriors trapped there.

“The sons of Odin were dismayed. They could not enter Niflheim. They returned to Asgard, defeated, and presented themselves before their father. ‘We could not succeed,’ said Thor. ‘Not with all our strength, and our wisdom, and our cunning.’

“Odin asked, ‘Who is the greatest among you?’

“Thor said, ‘I am, for I am the mightiest. Leaders must have strength above all.’

“Baldur said, ‘I am, for I am the wisest. Leaders must be wise above all.’

“Váli said, ‘I am, for I am the most cunning. Leaders must be tricky above all.’

“Odin said, ‘I sent you to Niflheim, knowing you would fail. Why?’ The three brothers did not know the answer. Odin said, ‘To teach you that you must act as one. When I set you on a task, you are not three, but one. You must strike with one arm, think with one mind, run as one body. The ruling of Asgard demands no less.’”

Erik fell silent. What was it supposed to mean? Erik had always taken it as some kind of moral fable, to not value strength or wisdom or cunning above all else. He’d never felt that he had a surplus of any of the three, though.

“The true son of Odin unites all those qualities,” Finnar said. “He is the one, so the prophecy says, who will unite the Brandrinn. He’s not really Odin’s son. It’s just a figure of speech.”

“Have care for your words,” the dark-skinned Brandrinn said. “You may believe that, but the rest of us do not.”

“Watch your own tongue, Emuar,” Finnar said. “Literal or not, I won’t let you burden my son. Now, we have to be practical. Bjarheim has fallen to the Shadow. What are you going to do about it?”

“Our magic is that of life. It is anathema to the Shadow.” Emuar walked in a circle, arms outstretched, somehow encompassing the whole forest. He seemed to be a leader among the Brandrinn; Ollemar, who had always been so quick to criticize anything the Bjarheimers did, was completely silent. “But if we leave the forest to go to Bjarheim, how will our magic succeed? The forest is our Mother, the source of our power, and the master of our fates. At Bjarheim, we will be weak.”

“You have to do something!” Erik blurted. “We can’t just let Bjarheim die!”

“If you believe the prophecy,” Finnar said, “then you must come together. The forest will survive without you. This is the purpose the prophecy speaks of!”

The Brandrinn grumbled, but none objected, not even Emuar. “Let us ask the forest,” Emuar said finally. “We will all rest here tonight. Tomorrow, we will decide what to do.”

“There is one other thing. The Shadow has sent its servants into the forest,” Ollemar said. “They are coming.”

The other Brandrinn, startled, all looked up toward the tops of the trees that ringed the Vângr. “They are close,” Emuar said. “But… I cannot tell where. Why were we not alerted?”

“Because they are cloaking themselves from you,” rang a voice from the tunnel. Aiar lurched up out of the hole, sweating and looking… frightened.

“I told you not to enter!” Ollemar shouted, alarmed.

“What is a fae doing here?” Emuar said, whipping his staff around and adopting a fighting stance.

Erik ran between them. “Wait, no! He’s helping us!” He looked at Aiar. The fae was clutching his arm, and some sort of black smoke rose off it. “What happened?”

“They attacked without warning. I… I barely had time to raise wards and flee. You said they cannot enter here, Brandrinn,” Aiar said to Ollemar. “How certain are you of that?”

Ollemar gazed out at the ring of pines that encircled the Vângr. Erik saw the green energy still flowing between the trees, but as he watched, something seemed to strike against that barrier, sending crackling waves of light flowing into the Vângr. Erik perceived a distant ringing, as if a colossal gong had been struck.

“That… should not be happening,” Finnar said. He took a step back, unconsciously shielding Erik.

Erik darted around his father and looked again. There was something wrong with the trees. The green energy was still there, but it had changed, somehow. “Are they going to break through?”

“It isn’t possible!” Emuar wailed. The distant gonging sound came again, and another wave of crackling green light sputtered from the trees. Erik looked up. The very uppermost branches were withering.

“What do we do?” Erik shouted. Emuar had fallen to his knees and was clutching at his chest; several of the other Brandrinn had followed suit. Something was hurting them, just as it was hurting the wall of trees encircling the Vângr. Ollemar, alone among them, kept his feet. And Finnar, of course.

“We must restore the shield,” Ollemar said. “Brothers! Come, you must!” He tried to lift Emuar to his feet, but the dark-skinned Brandrinn tore his arm away and fell back, shrieking.

“Why can’t they help?” Erik shouted.

Finnar came over, staring down at them. “They are too attuned to the trees. All of them have been in the forest a long, long time.” He shifted his gaze to Ollemar. “You. How long?”

“Twelve years,” Ollemar said. “I am the youngest.”

“And so the least tied to the forest’s heart.” He took Erik by the shoulder. “You two will have to bolster the wall.”

“How?” Erik said. “I don’t have any idea how it works! All I can do is make little plants grow, or—”

“Ollemar will guide you. He will use your strength.”

“Can’t you do it?” Erik said, near tears. How could his Da expect him to handle something like this?

Finnar shook his head. “My magic is long gone. When I left the forest, the magic left me. It was… Now is not the time. Come on!” He took Erik’s arm with one enormous fist, and Ollemar’s with the other. The young Brandrinn, so arrogant in the past, quailed and let himself be dragged along toward the wall of trees.

Nobody else followed, except Kari, of course. “No, go back,” Erik said when he noticed her.

“Like the hells I will,” she snapped. “Even if I can’t help, I ain’t leaving you alone to that.” She was pointing up at the wall of trees. Erik looked. The branches, high up, had turned to ash, fluttering away in the wind. Dark tendrils probed between the trunks. Something was going to come through before long.

Twenty paces from the bole of a great pine, Finnar ground to a halt. “Here,” he said, prodding Ollemar forward. “You can weave the shield whole again, yes?”

“Y—yes,” Ollemar said. “But not by myself! I’m not that strong.”

“As I said, Erik will provide the strength.”

Erik gulped. He had no idea what was going to happen. He sought the little green light that nestled inside his mind. The violet one was there too, pulsing in quiet counterpoint, unaware of the Shadow lurking yards away, waiting to devour them all.

Erik ignored the violet light—the fae magic would do no good here, would it?—and focused on the green. As Ollemar stepped forward, Erik pushed the green ball out into the air before him. “Do… do what you have to,” he said.

Ollemar took his staff and waved it in the air before Erik’s face. The pattern made no sense to him at first, but then he began to see it: an intricate weaving in the space where the tip of the staff passed, trailing faint green light behind it. The green ball floating before Erik began to glow brighter, and elongate, like a baker stretching dough out for long loaves. The brightness grew and grew, making Erik squint and then avert his eyes completely. It was like trying to look at the sun. “By the gods,” Ollemar said as he continued his weaving.

Erik forced himself to look back. The pattern woven in the air before him was astonishingly bright, but Erik realized that it was not just green. Tendrils of violet light had woven themselves into it, creating a tapestry in the air that made the earlier weaving look like a child’s idle play. The edges of the shield unfolded, growing ever larger and more detailed, delineating runes of power that pulsed with purpose.

Finally Ollemar dipped his staff right into the center of the shield, and with a mighty grunt heaved his staff upward. The whole shield shattered into a million numinous fragments, embedding themselves in the great trees. The fading green light of the Brandrinn’s old shield was replaced by a radiant brocade of emerald and amethyst. The Shadow, just beginning to seep its way through into the Vângr, vanished with a shriek. The tops of the trees were still ash, but the corruption had stopped.

Erik realized he’d fallen onto his knees. But he wasn’t tired, not in the least. “Are we safe?”

“For now,” Finnar said, looking up in awe. “Maybe forever. Can you believe it, brother?” he said to Ollemar, who was leaning on his staff, panting. “Fae and Brandrinn magic, working together. It’s a more glorious work than I’ve ever seen.”

“It… it shouldn’t be possible…” Ollemar pushed himself upright and strode over to the trees. The Shadow’s probing tendrils had made it seem as if there were colossal gaps between each trunk, but now you couldn’t blow a breath of air between them. “The others!” he said suddenly, and ran back toward the center of the Vângr. Erik loped after him, Kari and Finnar on his heels.

Emuar and the other Brandrinn were all on their feet again, gazing about in wonder. The Frays and the other Bjarheimers, of course, hadn’t been able to see any of the magic. They looked terrified; from their perspective, the trees had started disintegrating, and then stopped. “We’re safe,” he said to Sannfred and Gaelle. “For now, anyway.”

“What did you do, boy?” Sannfred demanded. “Are we going to get eaten by the Shadow or not?”

“Not today,” Finnar said. “My boy, and Ollemar here, did an amazing thing.”

Emuar had shown open contempt before. Now there was only amazement on his face. “I… I cannot… this…”

Finnar went to him and put a calming hand on his shoulder. “And yet it has. We cannot deny that which is before our eyes.”

Erik went over to Aiar. The fae still clutched at his arm. The black smoke that had been roiling off it had stopped, but Erik spied angry red blisters beneath his fingers. “Are you all right?” Erik asked.

“I will be,” the fae said, for once too distracted to imbue his words with their usual sarcastic patina. “I saw you using fae magic over there.”

“Ollemar was the one doing it,” Erik protested. “His magic and mine… joined together, somehow.”

“Well. That’s something to consider. But we still have the problem that agents of the Shadow are lurking beyond the walls of the Vângr. We can’t stay here forever, and they may well try to break in again.”

“Not a chance,” Ollemar said. A great deal of his confidence seemed to have returned. Erik wondered if that was so wise. “The shield we wove is a thousand times greater than anything I have ever wrought.”

“That may be, but we are trapped here. And unless someone knows how to magically produce unlimited food and clean water from nothing, we are going to end up with some… logistical problems.”

“You’re all idiots,” Kari said. “We’ve bought ourselves some time, right? So let’s rest and eat what we can.” She looked up at the sky, which was beginning to purple. Erik realized that they’d been weaving that shield for many minutes; hours, perhaps. “We’ll sleep, and tomorrow we’ll figure out how to deal with… them out there.”

Erik threw his arms around her and squeezed. She yelped surprise, but did not break away. Erik was so glad that someone here was concerned with practicalities, rather than bloviating about magic. They all seemed so convinced that he’d made the shield, when all he’d done was stand there letting Ollemar do all the work!

But now everyone, save Kari, was eyeing him with some mixture of awe and fear. Erik the sorcerer; Erik the mighty, came a voice in his head. I’m no such thing! he argued at himself. The voice cackled.


A day's delay

Alas! The next part of BJARHEIM'S SHADOW will be up shortly; circumstances forced a slight delay.

23 April, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part IX

If you missed it, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


Aiar lurched to his feet. “Already? No, you must be mistaken.” But he paused, giving Erik hope. “What do you see?”

“This sort of… sparkling light. Violet, like the magic you do. But then there’s this green thing, too. They both get bright and dim, opposite each other.”

“By the lights… You really do have two magics.”

“You didn’t think so?”

“I was unsure. This is all very unsettled territory, Erik. You must realize how unusual it is. For a human to have the methar alone is something worthy of note, but to also have whatever it is that the Brandrinn do… It is astonishing.”

Erik grinned. This was the nicest that Aiar had ever been. “Careful, or I might get the idea you don’t hate me any more.”

Aiar glowered at him. “Have no fear of that, young idiot. I must examine you.” He came over and, without asking, put his hand on Erik’s head again, as he had done that night back at Erik’s home—Don’t think of Bjarheim, don’t. The fae hummed, squinting at Erik, and then his eyes popped open. “Yes, it is there. Before, I said it would take you a year. Two days is most certainly a new record.” He paused for a long while; Erik was beginning to feel sleepy again, as it was still full dark. One or two other folk had stirred when he’d shouted, but once they noticed him talking quietly with Aiar, they’d fallen back asleep.

Kari didn’t, though. While Aiar stared, she came up next to Erik, rubbing her eyes. Her free hand slipped into his. “What’s going on?”

“Your ipfillistin can sense the methar,” Aiar said abruptly. “I am trying to decide how best to guide his learning without him killing himself or the rest of us, or burning down the forest.”

“Is there much chance of that?” Erik asked, nervous. This was really happening; and while Aiar might be given to exaggeration, if he said there was a chance Erik might kill them all, he meant it.

“If we are careful, the risk is low. But a proper fae would learn magic from a master in isolation, spending his first decade having only rare contact with anyone besides his master.”

“What d’you mean, ‘isolation’?” Kari said. “You’re all cooped up in those caves, aren’t you?”

“There are much deeper chambers. It is those we use. Deep enough to—” He cut himself off, narrowing his eyes. “You had best not learn of that.” Erik began to speak, to ask anyway, but Aiar chopped the air with his hand. “No! You are not there, so there is no need to know. Do not ask again.”

Erik grumbled but went along. How was he supposed to learn anything if Aiar wouldn’t teach him? It wasn’t as if he was going to run off to find whatever deep caves he was talking about. “Fine. So now that I can sense it, what do I do with it?”

“Noth—well. I was going to say, do nothing, but, hm. It might take a fae student a year or two to even begin to sense the methar, and then he would spend the next several years examining it, becoming familiar.”

“But I sensed it in two days,” Erik said. “If that was fast, why not the next step?”

“So eager to blow yourself up, hm?” Aiar arched an eyebrow. “Very well. I suppose I must get a head start, if the Brandrinn are to try to teach you as well.” He glanced around, wary. “Perhaps you could not mention the green light you saw.”

“Too late,” whispered a voice above their heads, and Erik jumped back. Ollemar was hanging upside-down from a branch not five feet above them.

Aiar glared at Erik. “I thought you could sense him.”

“I can… when I’m not distracted.”

Ollemar flipped down, making almost no noise as he landed. “If you can see the Seed within you, you are ready to learn. Fae may be able to waste decades hiding underground, but we Brandrinn have pressing concerns. One learns to fly by being thrust from the nest, not by hopping around safely on the ground.”

“Hopeless,” Aiar grunted. “I will teach the boy first, since he agreed to be taught by me first. Let us see what your Vângr brings, and then you may teach him.”

“There is no time to waste. I will teach him today as we walk.”

“You said we would reach the Vângr today! Surely even you cannot be that impatient.”

“Hey!” Erik interrupted. “Excuse me, but I’ll be deciding who I learn from first.”

Aiar sighed. “Of course you will. Well?”

Erik looked back and forth between his two prospective teachers. Aiar had offered first, but the Brandrinn had this prophecy… “Couldn’t I take turns? One day with Aiar, and one day with Ollemar?”

“That would be far too slow,” Aiar scoffed. “You must focus on one or the other if you are to learn anything.”

“For once I agree with the fae,” Ollemar said. “Perhaps someday you might learn… his magic, and master both, but there is no time to be poor at two things, rather than skilled at one.”

“Fine. Then I’ll flip a coin for it. Heads, Aiar. Tails, Ollemar.”

“Fair enough.” Ollemar nodded. “Proceed.”

Aiar sighed again, even more dramatically than before. “This is suitably idiotic, I suppose.” He waved a hand. “Get on with it.”

Erik dug into his pockets and found a penny. He hadn’t had any money with him when he’d fled his house, so he’d thought, but this one penny had been tucked away in a fold in his trousers.

He balanced it on his thumb and flipped it toward the branches. It was still quite dark, only the remnants of their campfire giving any illumination. The coin arced and fell, and Erik had to crunch through the dead pine needles to get close enough to see how it had landed.

It was lodged, edge-first, in the crook of a twig.

Aiar burst out laughing, while Ollemar stared uneasily. “Do not think to manipulate things with your foul magic,” the Brandrinn warned Aiar.

“I did no such thing, imbecile. Do you not see the humor? Ah, nevermind. Flip again, Erik.”

He took the coin and gave it another toss. It struck the dirt and came to rest leaning upright against a pebble.

“Oh now come on!” Erik said. “Which one of you is doing that?”

“I promise you I am making no attempt to influence things,” Aiar said, holding up his hands. “And you would see if I did. Once you can see the methar, you can see all magic woven with it.”

Erik looked at Ollemar. The Brandrinn gritted his teeth. “Cheating at games is a very great sin among the Brandrinn,” he said darkly. “And, too, you would have seen if I had used any magic on the coin.”

“One more time?” Kari said. She reached down and picked up the coin again.

“You should flip it,” Erik said.

She laughed and pressed it into his palm. “I’ll not be responsible for your choices, Erik Rain.” She kissed him on the cheek. Somehow, this time, it made him feel horribly embarrassed.

He sighed and flipped the coin once more. This time it landed with a splash, and when he knelt he saw that there was a tiny, muddy puddle in a depression between two fist-sized rocks. He couldn’t see which way the coin had settled on the bottom.

“Here,” Aiar said, reaching out his fingers and twisting a little. A ball of bright violet light erupted from them, and floated gently down toward the puddle. Erik knelt down, and put his face right beside it.

The coin was stuck, edge-up, in the mud at the bottom of the puddle.

Kari whistled. “It just won’t decide.”

“Or maybe he doesn’t,” Aiar said, looking curiously at Erik. “But if he was using magic to influence it—if he was even capable of that at this point—the Brandrinn or I would see it. I saw no such thing.” He glanced at Ollemar. “You?”

The Brandrinn shook his head. “This is unnatural.”

Erik fished the coin out of the puddle and wiped it on his trouser leg. “Well either this coin is cursed, or we all are. I guess I have to decide myself.” He truly couldn’t, though. Why was this so hard? Just pick one!

“We have wasted much time,” Ollemar grunted. “Sleep more, and decide in the morning.” He trod away silently, and climbed up a tree into the darkness.

Kari patted Erik on the arm and went back toward their hollow. Aiar turned to go as well, but Erik grabbed his sleeve. “Wait. Before, you called me… ipf… iffil… What was it?”

Ipfillistin,” Aiar said. “It translates directly as ‘blood of the heart.’”

“So… I’m Kari’s… heartsblood?” Erik scratched at his chin. “What does that mean?”

“Colloquially, it means ‘that which one cannot live without.’” His eyes twinkled violet in the darkness, and then he was gone.

Erik nestled into the hollow again and put his arm around Kari. She twitched a little at his touch, then settled. That which I can’t live without. I thought we were just kids. All the playing at romance, the stolen kisses, that was just stuff kids did. It didn’t mean anything. They were best friends; that wasn’t the same as being… together.

But she’d already shown him how important he was to her, with her demands that he never leave her, the way her brother had. By Odin, why didn’t she ever tell me about that? Well, the way her father had reacted, clearly it was some horrible family secret. Erik couldn’t possibly ask Sannfred about it, and Kari, well, he didn’t want to distress her again. The twins were definitely too young to remember. That left Gaelle. Kari’s mother was a chatterbox in good times, but this wasn’t that. He’d seen a backbone of iron in that woman since they’d left Bjarheim.

Later, he thought. I can ask later. For now, he snuggled in close to Kari, and felt the rhythm of her breathing, and let slumber creep upon him once more.

Erik half expected the Vângr to take place at some random clearing in the woods, and so he was wholly unprepared to find a colossal, solid wall of trees blocking their path. They were huge pines, grown so close together that barely a sliver of light could squeeze between them.

“Now that ain’t natural,” Sannfred Fray said, coming up behind Erik.

“Nothing could be more natural,” Ollemar said, appearing out of nowhere and making Sannfred jump. “If one can speak with the trees, one can make them see the wisdom of growing in unusual ways.”

Erik’s eyes were only for the trees themselves. There was a faint green glow from them, a web of pulsing light passing from trunk to trunk, branch to branch, cone to cone. “What is that?”

Ollemar came up beside him. “A ward. Shadow cannot enter this place. Come. You may all enter, except the fae.”

“I will be quite content out here, I assure you,” Aiar said. He had been miffed all day, since Erik still hadn’t decided who should teach him first. Both Aiar and Ollemar had complained about wasted time, but they couldn’t understand how hard this was! No one had ever turned their lives upside down with secrets and prophecies and revelations.

Ollemar smirked and strode toward the wall of trees. It curved away out of sight in both directions; if those trees were laid out in a circle, they would enclose a sizable area.

Erik looked back at their group. Ollemar, despite his general hostility, had gladly shared his food with the rest of the Bjarheim folk, and showed them the best places to gather water. He did not seem to mind the idea of their entering the Vângr. None of them seemed to want to wait outside, so Erik took a deep breath and followed Ollemar.

The Brandrinn ducked between two enormous roots that looked far too tightly woven to pass through; but there was just enough space, for the roots had been grown in such a cunning way that even Sannfred, the largest of their party, was able to squeeze through with nary a scratch. There was a path under here, unlit but for the scattered sunlight from above.

And then it was dark. Erik put his hands out and followed along. He realized after several steps that there was a faint green light illuminating the walls. He could even see where Ollemar’s footsteps had landed, although the ranger had disappeared ahead.

“Erik, wait,” Kari called out. “We can’t see anything.”

“Huh? But there’s—oh.” The green light was the same glow he’d seen outside, Brandrinn magic. Of course the others couldn’t see it. “I’ll guide you. We’ll make a chain.” He went back and took Kari’s hand. “Stay there a second.” He went back, bringing each person forward to grasp the next one’s hand, until there was a chain ten people long. Ilvha, having one hand occupied by her babe, came last.

Erik returned to the front of the chain, took Kari’s hand again, and went forward. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and he could see quite well, though everything was tinged green. The tunnel curved, and a few times someone or other bumped their heads against the low dirt ceiling or bits of root that protruded from it. Before long there was a spot of light ahead. Kari yelped with delight when she saw it, and Erik could hear the whole chain of Bjarheimers growing eager to escape the darkness.

Finally there was enough light for the others to see, and one by one they scrambled up and out of the hole, into daylight again. Erik looked back. The wall of trees was a hundred yards back; the tunnel had brought them to what seemed to be near the middle of the Vângr.

Ollemar awaited them, and, Erik realized, so did several other Brandrinn. They all wore the same greens and browns, and Erik had assumed they’d all be as nondescript as Ollemar. But aside from their clothing, the eight—no, ten other Brandrinn were as different as could be: tall and pale, short and dark, old and bald, young and apple-cheeked. Erik turned about, examining them one by one. The Frays huddled together, glancing nervously about, except Kari, who stayed holding Erik’s hand. It was a bright spot of warmth amidst all the cold glares of the Brandrinn.

Even Ollemar looked nervous. He cleared his throat. “Brothers,” he said, for the Brandrinn did all appear to be male. “The prophecy of Endras has come to pass. This boy is born of two magics. He has the Seed. And… another magic, whose name I will not use among these boughs.”

The other Brandrinn muttered, staring at Erik with cautious eyes. Erik tried to speak low to Ollemar, but his voice carried anyway. “What do you mean, ‘born of two magics?’ My mother was part—um, the thing you don’t want to say. But my Da…” He trailed off, sudden horror dawning on him.

Before he could say more, the largest of the Brandrinn spoke up, a man with fiery red hair and a beard that touched the middle of his chest. “You say he can use our magic, and—the other. Show us, boy.”

Erik gulped. He focused on the green light in his mind’s eye first. Better to start with the magic they’ll like. He couldn’t do much, but he had figured this out, in an idle moment when they’d stopped to eat lunch. He knelt down to the ground, finding a spot of bare dirt among the grass. Erik let the green light in his mind seep into the soil. He could feel it flowing between the tiny clods of dirt. And—there! He found what he was looking for.

The seed sprouted instantly, drawing its life from the emerald light. A pale green shoot sprung up from the dirt, uncoiling into a small, fuzzy stalk about the size of Erik’s finger.

The red-haired Brandrinn nodded. He too looked nervous. “Very well. What of… the other?”

“He should not use that magic here,” another Brandrinn said, the short, dark-skinned one. He was twirling his staff around slowly, as if preparing to fight. Erik gulped.

“It is necessary,” Ollemar said. “He must show that he is the one Endras foretold.”

All the other Brandrinn grumbled, and the dark-skinned one pursed his lips, glowering at Erik. Erik gulped again and sought the methar, the violet light in his mind. He hadn’t actually learned how to do anything with it yet. Aiar would be furious if he saw this. Good thing he stayed outside.

And yet, when Erik tried, it came naturally. The methar flowed forth just as the Seed had, looping and spinning in the air, as if it had a mind of its own, eager to make something of itself. Erik held out his hand, and settled the methar into it. He wondered if he could make it glow, to emit light that the Brandrinn could see—

Everyone yelped when the methar suddenly flashed brightly, casting long shadows all around and dazzling Erik. He futilely tried to block the glare with his hand, and the methar dissipated, nestling itself back inside his head again.

Once everyone’s vision cleared, the Brandrinn stared at Erik with something between awe and dismay. “It is as I said,” Ollemar intoned. “He is foretold. He will bind us, and destroy us.” Ollemar knelt down before Erik. “Odinson,” the Brandrinn said.

“Odinson,” the others all said, kneeling where they stood.

“Uh,” Erik said, completely lost. “Can someone explain what that means?”

“I can,” said a deep voice, and Erik turned around to look directly into the eyes of his father.