26 February, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part I


Erik gazed out over the land of his birth, at the green fields nestled beside the city that stretched to the horizon, and his very breath caught in his throat as the towers turned black and the bright streets had the life leached from them. Indelible decay crawled from rooftop to rooftop, sullying everything he’d ever known and loved, a black pitch spreading over the city as if growing from seeds left by a demonic forester, leaving sickness and ruin in its wake. The city of Bjarheim fell under shadow’s dominion, and Erik Rain could do nothing but scream despair into the ash-choked sky.

Five weeks earlier

Erik vaulted the wall, laughing, glancing back only long enough to make sure Kari was still following. Her auburn curls bounced, heedless of her determination as she skidded around the corner and caught sight of Erik. He flashed a smile and bolted onward.

“Slow down, gods damn you,” she shouted. Erik said nothing as he loped away. Kari would not lose him. She was too good for that. She knew the streets too well. He’d never escaped her before. That was half the fun, though. Getting caught.

He dodged past annoyed grown-ups, middle-aged men in their long coats, and matrons pushing prams. Most of them clucked and tsked as he dove by, but he saw a few approving grins hidden behind mustaches and veils. They remembered. Stuffy as they looked now, half these folk had been runners just as he was.

Evenbell had clanged already, sonorous booms echoing off every wall and streetcorner, and so the city had tumbled into the streets under the purpling sky. This was Erik’s favorite time to run. And to be chased. Kari’s boots slapped on the pavement in perfect rhythm. She could have worn softer shoes, but he liked knowing how far behind she was. It drove him on.

Erik swung between two trees on the edge of a green. Young children, runners-to-be, cavorted on the lawn under the eyes of watchful mums. The wee ones stared in awe as he sprinted past, honking their delighted cries like goslings stumbling upon a nest of grubs. Kari burst through the trees behind him, closer than he’d thought. The grass muffled the thumps of her boots, but she was closing, he could tell. If I’m right, she’ll catch me just as…

The Cathedral appeared as he swung past Orngrim’s Apothecary, and he pumped his arms to drive himself up the hill toward it. The gargoyles gazed down at him, their eyes tracking as he approached, or was that just an illusion? He’d always been told it was, but the way those gargoyles stared, he was sure there was a true fire within.

Kari’s boots rapped their staccato ever closer. It was only steps now; he couldn’t slow. If the door wasn’t open… Ah! The wooden planks swung aside to reveal the vaulted chamber within—there, Father Bernhard, staring in startlement. “You—”

Erik glanced at the ground. The fae lamps cast an uneven shadow on the ancient cobbled stones of the square before the Cathedral, but he could make out Kari’s shape. She was almost within arm’s reach. Erik doffed his cap and made a half-bow to Father Bernhard while running; not easy, but he’d practiced. Kari’d catch him—

Father Bernhard yelped and lurched out of the way as Erik grabbed the edge of the door, his momentum swinging him around in a tight arc. Kari’s fingers had just brushed his hood, but when he pivoted out of the way, she overshot. He snatched her arm and let her own speed carry him into her surprised embrace. They spun to a stop just as he planted a kiss on her.

“Whuf” was what he said next, when she planted her fist in his belly. All right, so he hadn’t expected that. “What was that for?” he complained.

“You cheated. I said you could have a kiss if you won. We tied.” She held her hand out expectantly.

“You can have yer coppers,” he grunted, doubled over. She hadn’t punched him that hard, really, but no sense letting ’em see all your cards. He dug into his pouch and pulled out a fivence. She tried to snatch it when he held it out, and he grabbed her arm again. She tried to jerk away but he pulled her close. “If it’s a tie, then we each get our bit. Proper,” he warned, holding up a finger.

Father Bernhard ahemmed loudly. “Will this unsightly display be finished soon? A house of the gods is no place for youthful cavorting.”

Erik ignored him. He brushed the hair from his sweaty forehead with the hand that had the coin in it. Kari’s eyes followed it. “Fine,” she said. “You cheater.” She reached up with her other hand and closed it around the coin, but Erik didn’t let it go until she let him kiss her for a solid three seconds.

Then, all honorable-like, he let the coin free. “I got th’ better end of that deal,” he boasted, doffing his cap again and making a sweeping bow before the girl.

She was a real peach. Not so pretty, really, kind of a pinched face, but they’d grown up together, and even the pretty girls who strolled down on Thorsdal Lane couldn’t hold a candle. Somehow, to Erik, Kari was a woman in a way those fancy ice queens would never be.

“If you’re quite done, I believe you have something for us,” Father Bernhard said. He had wild tufts of white hair behind each ear, like a plinth of clouds supporting the shiny sky dome of his bald pate. He wore rough brown wool like all the brothers, and carried a look of permanent annoyance. Maybe because of the wool. It looked itchy.

Erik reached under his vest and slid out the little package, brown waxed paper around something hard, about the size of his palm but flat. “I know they says not to ask, but I’d trade a piece to know what’s in it. Mister Annarson was in a right mood when he handed that over. Even more of a sourpuss than usual.”

“He probably assumed you’d lose it, seeing as you’re so careless,” Kari said. She’d withdrawn to a safe remove and did not look at him. She liked to do that, make him feel ignored after he’d gotten close.

“I would never,” Erik exclaimed. “And if I did, why, you’d be right there to pick it up, wouldn’t you, darling?”

“Call me darling again and I’ll plant these fancy boots in your—”

“Enough, children,” Father Bernhard snapped. He’d unwrapped the package and was looking at the object, something silvery and light-bending. Erik couldn’t make head or tails of it. He made to move closer, but Bernhard turned away and tromped toward the stairs. Erik knew better than to try to go up to the brothers’ chambers. They did not take kindly to the uninitiated up there, his backside had learned by way of a good strapping or two. Or three. He was still curious about the object, but it had skittered out of reach. For the moment.

Kari lurked by the door. She had no reason to be here, other than to keep Erik company. She wiped sweat from her own forehead and looked at him. “What after this? Home?”

“Maybe. Da’s not home, he had to go to some meeting or something. So I’d be alone.” He grinned at her. “Less so if someone came to keep me company.”

Kari narrowed her eyes at him. “How sad that will be for you, then.” But she did grin back. A little.

Father Bernhard came down a minute later. “Here’s your chit,” he said, handing a folded piece of parchment to Erik. Returned to Master Annarson, it’d earn Erik his pay for the delivery. He was flat broke, of course, after buying sweet pies at Mikkelson’s, and donating a bit to the beggar Old Brahn, and of course losing the bet with Kari. That was a reliable, if minor, source of income for her. He always let her catch him. He always tried to make it a tie, anyway. His lips still tingled a little.

“What was it I delivered, Father?” he asked as the rotund old priest chivvied him toward the door.

“An artifact, nothing of your concern. Now get on home before it’s full dark.” He shoved Erik out into the square, but then politely waited for Kari to exit, before closing the Cathedral’s door.

“May I walk miss home?” Erik said, offering his arm. Kari snorted and strode past him. He followed anyway. Where else was he going to go? Home? Da would be gone for hours. He could find some trouble in the alleys outside Annarson’s. The merchant never called the constables on the urchins who gathered there, because too many of them were good runners, willing to take packages to the far corners of Bjarheim for the promise of a tenner. For some of ’em, that was more money than they’d see in a week any other way, begging or pickpocketing.

Kari seemed to be heading back toward Annarson’s, retracing their route, so Erik trailed along, trying to stay beside her. “You got plans?”

Her curls had gotten unruly on the run, and she was spending most of her attention pulling them back into order. She didn’t go in for dresses; in fact aside from the colors and the cut—she needed room for bust and hips, obviously, that Erik didn’t—her clothes could swap for his. Wool trousers, good boots, sturdy leather belt, vest over shirt, jacket with hood. In the winter they’d have their big coats, but it was practically summer’s eve, and warm even after dark.

Some of the boys would make comments about her clothes, but never more than once. A nose bloodied by a girl would shut up even the boastingest fellow.

“In fact I do,” she said after a minute. “You’d probably better go on home.”

“I’ll tag along. Got to get my pay from Annarson, ain’t I? What else am I gonna do?”

Kari stopped on the street, forcing a carriage to divert around them, the driver cursing. She ignored him completely. “You can’t come with me.”

“Why not?”

She stared at him, then looked away, and with her hand made a gesture of—what was that? Confusion? Dismay? She was always so certain, even when she didn’t know something. “It’s… Remy.”

Erik drew back. “That blustering cadge? What are you… You’re not going with him, are you?”

“He’s taking me to Riverwatch.”

Erik’s jaw dropped. “To Riverwatch? You never told me you wanted to go to Riverwatch!”

“You never asked me,” she said, shrugging and looking increasingly uncomfortable. “He asked, and… I do.”

The welter of emotions threatened to send him to the pavement. He couldn’t even pick them apart; it was a jumbled mass of betrayal, confusion, regret… Why hadn’t he ever asked her to go to Riverwatch?

“I have to go,” she said. She had drawn close to him. She took his hand for a moment, then leaned in and pecked him on the cheek. Not chastely, and not passionately; the kiss of a good friend. She said no more, and strode off, maybe with a shade of embarrassment in her step.

He was so distraught that he didn’t go to Annarson’s to collect his pay. Instead he meandered through the streets feeling sorry for himself until he realized that he’d come to the edge of the city. The fae wall rose in its violet waves, blurring the black landscape beyond. He wasn’t anywhere near either of the gates, which suited him. Less traffic, less folk to stare and point and laugh at the poor sod who’d just had his heart stomped on. He spent a little while pushing his hand into the soft iron of the wall, letting it push back with its tingle. Nothing got through the fae wall, but right now he wanted to escape into the darkness.

He sighed, ran his fingers through his hair, and pulled his hood up. It was dark, and getting cold, so he turned away from the fae wall and headed for home. In the emptying streets, only the fae lamps gave any light, and what illumination they provided seemed recalcitrant. They didn’t want to light a prat like Erik any more than he wanted to be seen.

He pushed the door of his house open and found that the hearth was burning inside. The warmth cheered him a little, but only a little. Belatedly he realized that someone must be here, if the hearth was on; but who? Da’s meeting was supposed to be some big deal, running on for hours, the big men talking their important talk. Erik tensed as he thought there might be some intruder, or squatter—

“Little brother? Is that you?”

Erik’s heart leapt a yard. “Magnus!”

His big, big brother came out of the kitchen, carrying a pitcher. He had his big awkward smile on, but it faltered when he saw Erik’s face. “Are you all right?”

“Ah, yeah, fine,” Erik lied, pasting on his own smile. “What are you doing here? Da didn’t say you were in the city!”

A play of expression flitted across Magnus’s broad face. He’d never been able to hide his emotions, not well. No subtlety at all, and too big to be a runner. But the meaning of Magnus’s expression escaped Erik. “Da asked me to come back. But look, we’ll talk about that later. What’s gotten you all dour?”

Erik thought about making up a story, but why? He told Magnus all about the delivery, and all that had happened with Kari, as they sat by the fire. Magnus listened as he chewed on bread and fried fish he’d prepared. Erik’s stomach was still in knots, and he didn’t eat.

Magnus snorted. “That girl’s been your daylight ever since you were knee-high to a boar. No wonder you’re so shot.”

“Yeah, well, have your best girl taken away by the likes of Remy Thurain, see how you like it.”

“You think I never lost a girl before?” Magnus said, taking a long swig of ale. Erik eyed it, thinking about maybe asking for some to dull the pain, but Magnus was too much of a goody-goody. He’d never let Erik have any, not till he was a man in full.

Erik meant to tease out whatever girl Magnus was talking about, but the door banged open. They were sitting before the hearth, so Erik had only to twist around and see that Da had come home. He got up and ducked his head.

Finnar Rain filled the doorway, looking much like an older, grittier, more scarred version of Magnus. His hair had long since gone gray, with only streaks of black left in his beard. Parallel grooves ran along his right cheek, three narrow white scars. Erik had asked where they came from, but Finnar would not say. Men of Bjarheim were rarely scarred. Erik had spent many nights wondering how his father had gotten those marks.

Unlike Magnus, Erik took after their mother, thin and sharp-boned and pale. That’s what Finnar always said, anyway, but Erik didn’t remember her. Except for one image, a fair-haired lady hanging curtains on the windows, singing a lullaby… He never told his father about the memory, because he didn’t know if it was real. Da didn’t talk about Ma, except in his cups, and Erik had learned not to ask.

“How’d it go?” Magnus asked.

Finnar pressed his lips into a line, trying to decide what to say. He always did that. Deliberate and parsimonious, spending words like they were his lifeblood draining away. “Bad. We need to talk.” He gestured to the kitchen, and Magnus went and put together a tray for their father.

Erik stayed by the fire, waiting for Finnar to ask him for something. He could never predict the old man’s needs, so he just waited until Finnar barked commands at him. Getting barked at was better than getting shouted at for doing the wrong thing.

Finnar sat in his chair and waited silently until Magnus came back with a tray of bread and fish. Finnar dug in for a few minutes while his sons baked before the fire. Erik felt his curiosity boiling inside him, and hunger, too. He hadn’t wanted to eat, but now that Da was, his stomach rumbled. But he didn’t want to miss whatever Da was going to say. Out in the city, Erik would spout words to fill the silence. Not here.

Finnar set the tray aside and looked at his sons. His eyes, so dark a brown that they looked black except in bright daylight, flickered at Erik, then settled on Magnus. “The Conclave agrees. The shadow is coming.”

Magnus rocked back, taking a deep breath, as if to speak, but he stopped himself. He jerked his head toward Erik. “What does he know?”

“Nothing, yet.” Finnar turned his gaze on his younger son, as if trying to decide Erik’s worthiness to hear… whatever this was. The Conclave? What in the hells is that? What shadow? “Boy, you’re almost a man now. You still act like a child, but that’s got to stop. Now. No more running about in the city. You’ll have proper duties soon enough. You understand?”

Erik didn’t—well, he understood “no more running about,” but Da couldn’t mean that, could he?—but he nodded. “Yes sir.”

Finnar seemed to have spent all his words for the night, for he looked back at Magnus and nodded. Erik’s brother twisted around to look at him. “Brother… it is time to tell you about the Conclave. And the Shadow.”


Screw you, spacetime!

I'm back from the dead. Work continues apace on The Silver War, but on the way I've started a new bit of serialized fiction, which I'll be posting on a weekly basis right here on NBC this here blog-type thing.

It concerns a young man in a far northern city, and how all the world was covered by darkness. Stay tuned, 'cause Part I of Bjarheim's Shadow will be up soon.