28 March, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part V

If you missed it, check out earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV


“That’s ominous, but not very helpful,” Erik said.

“The details are not important! What is important is how to fight it.” Aiar glanced uneasily at the fire crackling in the hearth. “Em Salkatar is old enough that even we fae do not remember its origins. The aged among us pontificate about its philosophical significance, but the more sensible busy ourselves with ensuring that it does not destroy all.”

Erik smirked at the fae. “So you’re a sensible one, huh?”

Aiar scowled. “It would be foolish to argue otherwise. Do you know how long Bjarheim has been here?”

“I dunno. Ages?”

“Six hundred and forty-nine years since the first men erected the first structures. Our tunnels were already present. I still remember how astonished they were when we popped out of the ground to ask them what precisely they thought they were doing on our land.”

“You remember? You’re six hundred and forty-nine years old?” Erik had known fae lived longer than men, but this was absurd.

Aiar sniffed disdainfully. “I am eight hundred and seventy years old,” he declared. “I was merely a child when your forebears showed up.”

“So what are you now? If you’re not one of the, uh, ’elders…’”

“Do not concern yourself with the fae. You wanted answers about the Shadow, and those I have gladly provided.”

“If this is ’gladly’ then I’d hate to see you put out,” Erik said. Somehow, he wasn’t afraid of Aiar any more, even thought he felt like he should be. He wanted Kari to be here, to see how he was boldly confronting this arrogant creature.

“We are getting far afield. Is there any other information you desire, or are you finished holding my inspection of your mind hostage to your curiosity?”

“How do I fight the Shadow?”

You do not fight the Shadow, because you are an empty-headed child. When I am done with you, then you may go off and learn your inane human magics. Only then will you change from completely useless to only mostly useless.”

Erik was of a mind to try and throw Aiar out, bargain or no. If all fae were so rude, then it was a miracle they’d ever survived this long. “So is there anything of use you can tell me?”

“I shall reiterate. Go learn magic, preferably from the Brandrinn. They are the least useless of your magic-wielding folk. If you want to fight the Shadow, you will learn best from them.” He stood up. “I am tired of questions. You will let me inspect your mind now.”

The arrogance in Aiar’s voice almost made Erik resist again, but he had to give in sooner or later. “This had better not hurt,” he growled, trying to sound threatening.

Aiar waved it away. “It should not hurt. I cannot promise. Even if so, it will be temporary. You humans cannot even look ahead a few minutes to when things might be different.” He came over to Erik and put his hand atop Erik’s head. “Hold still.”

Erik didn’t know what to expect; some manner of violet light playing in intricate patterns in his mind, or maybe a mystical droning sound.

What actually happened was, as far as he could tell, precisely nothing. For a few minutes Aiar stood there, squinting and blinking bemusedly. He muttered once in a while, but Erik couldn’t make it out. If the lads could see me now, a fae in my house, poking around in my head…

Suddenly Aiar gasped and leapt back. “What!”

“What? What what?” Erik blinked. He’d felt nothing at all.

“You… you have the methar!

“Have I even got to ask what that is?”

“It…” Aiar gulped. “Could I have some water?”

This unexpected politeness startled Erik. He fetched Aiar a cup and waited until the fae drained it. Aiar still looked shocked. “The methar is… it is the essence of our magic. It is the seed, the kernel, the thing that lets fae-folk use magic. But you are human!

“So… I could learn to use fae magic?” Erik said. “How’s that possible?”

“It isn’t!” Aiar wailed. “This is… this… absurd!” He barrelled toward the door.

“Wait! Where are you going? I want to know more!”

Aiar said nothing and sprinted out into the night.

Erik tried to run after him, but the long-legged fae was just too fast. By the time Erik reached the end of his lane, Aiar had disappeared down the next street, and in seconds he was out of sight. Erik stopped, gasping for air, and wishing for certainty. He’d been happy, running the streets with his friends, with Kari… just a child, with a child’s worries, a child’s wants…

He went back home and waited for Da to return. He practiced what he wanted to say, but when Finnar finally came in, his father looked exhausted. No different than he’d looked on any other of a hundred nights, but somehow it impressed upon Erik as it never had before. He knew what it was: Finnar was beaten down by all this magical nonsense. He had no magic, Erik was sure; Finnar was no ironspeaker, or priest of the Order, or woodsman. It was probably all Da could do just to keep up.

“Da… are you all right?” Erik said, once Finnar had settled into his chair by the fire, and had a bit of wine and some hard bread.

Finnar looked at him. “Son… you’ve never asked me that before.”

Erik was affronted. “Yes I have.”

“No. Not like that.” He leaned forward, taking Erik’s arm, but not roughly, not like when Erik had done something bad and Da had meant to stripe his hide. “What happened?”

Erik was afraid to tell the truth, to tell that a fae had come to visit, had said such terrible things about him… but he saw the worry in Finnar’s eyes, and he understood.

He recounted Aiar’s visit, shaking his own head in wonder when he told about the methar. Erik expected Finnar to grow angry, but he didn’t. Instead, his face went pale.

“By the gods…” Finnar whispered. “I hoped… I never wanted…”

Erik wanted desperately to know what Da was thinking, but with a titanic effort of will he made himself wait. Da would work this out in his own time. Don’t leave me in the dark, father.

“Your… your mother was… I never believed her, but…” Finnar stopped, calming himself with measured breaths. “She said she was part fae.”

Erik blinked back sudden tears. He remembered his Mama, her fair hair draped around her face as she leaned down to pick him up, to hold and sing. Faint memories, like the mayflies of spring, lasting only a moment in the face of the harsher seasons to come.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I never thought it was important!” Finnar roared. “I thought she was puttin’ me on. Or that it was some family legend, some nonsense that her gran or grand-da passed down. But none o’ them were fae, that’s for damn certain. How could it be anything but a nonsense legend?”

“Well a fae told me to my face that I’ve got fae magic!” Erik shouted. “How’m I supposed to take that?”

“I don’t know!” Finnar stood up again. “Yer still my boy. Nothin’ changes that.”

Erik clenched his hands, trying to stop himself from attacking his father—and failed. He lurched forward, flailing his fists, wanting badly to do some kind of damage, to get some kind of revenge on his father for surviving, for not leaving like mother had

Finnar fended off the blows, not fighting back. Erik punched and kicked and made a minor nuisance of himself until his strength gave out, and with the last of his blind rage he flung himself up the stairs and into his room.

To the hells with it all! He slammed his fist against the wall, again and again, until the pain broke through. He sat on his bed, holding his bloodied knuckles. I should clean that, some distant part of him said. Instead he lay down on the bed, and had visions of Bjarheim burning until he fell asleep.

He had to tell Kari. She had to know. But he still couldn’t get to her. Missus Fray lost her patience and came after him with a broom, after the third time in a day he knocked on their door.

Erik tried using his friend Jak as a go-between to carry a message to Kari, but Missus Fray saw through that ruse and beat Jak about the head and shoulders with her broom until he ran off into the night.

Erik thought about going into the fae tunnels again, to find Aiar and demand some kind of explanation. But going in there alone felt wrong. Maybe Aiar would talk to the other fae and figure something out, and come back again.

He didn’t, at least not for the next couple of weeks. Erik waited each night, hoping for a knock on the door, but when he heard footsteps outside, it was always Da. Erik always asked after the fae, or the Shadow, or any of it. Finnar reluctantly parted with a few tidbits of information, but rarely anything useful. The only thing he consistently reported was that there’d still been no sign of Remy Thurain since the day the siktar had come. That should have been enough to damn Remy, but Da claimed that the rest of the Conclave wanted to hear Remy’s side of the story first.

Erik had grown used to it, his hopes dwindling. On a night three weeks after Aiar’s visit, well past the midnight bell, he heard footsteps outside, and went to greet his Da at the door.

When he opened it, Remy Thurain stood there grinning.

What came next Erik remembered only as bits and pieces: he backed away, banged against something, ran up the stairs, Remy’s cackle trailing after him, its fingers tripping Erik up as he reached the landing. Stumble, splinter, into the bedroom, out the window, have to get away—a curse, a shout, and finally a glance back and the realization that he was out in the street, in the cold, the moonlight a silent sentinel, its light drowning out the mild hearthfires glowing dully behind curtains.

Kari, he thought, one last bitter time, and sprinted toward her house. No matter what magic Remy might have, there was no way he could catch Erik at a dead run.

The moon and stars sparkled above—hadn’t they? Erik stared upward as he rounded the corner onto Kari’s street. The moon had dimmed, somehow. It was just as fat as before, but subdued, and the stars that sparkled all around it, ordinarily drowned in its silver majesty, were completely invisible. Clouds? No, clouds didn’t look like this.

He pounded on the Frays’ door, glancing back constantly in case Remy had followed him. There were thumps inside, and the peephole swung open. It was Missus Fray, looking livid. “What on earth are you doing?” she demanded.

“Something—something’s wrong! Remy Thurain just came to my house. And look!” Erik pointed up at the moon, hoping beyond hope that someone would just listen for once.

Gaelle Fray sighed and opened the door, rubbing her eyes still. She looked up at the sky, rubbed some more. “No,” she breathed, and tore back inside, far faster than Erik would have thought possible.

He went in after and shut the door, on the off chance Remy had tracked him here. Within a minute, the other Frays were all awake: Sannfred, Kari’s father, lumbered down the stairs in his nightdress, cursing and bumping into things and demanding to know what in the seven hells he’d been woken up for. Kari’s little brother and sister, the twins, came silently down as well, their mother hurriedly pushing them into their boots and fetching their big winter coats from a closet.

Kari came last, looking as unhappy to see Erik as she’d been the last few times. Erik forced himself not to speak to her, and instead tried to stop Missus Fray in her mad careening about the house. “What is it? What did you see?”

“Oh! Goodness!” she squeaked, as if she’d forgotten his presence. “We have to leave the city at once!”

“What? Why?”

“Why?” She grabbed Erik by the shoulders. “The Shadow!”

They shouted to warn the neighbors, but Sannfred Fray would not let them hesitate for a moment once they were prepared for travel. “You ain’t got a thing but what you’re wearin’, so that’ll have to do,” the burly man said to Erik, bewildered that somehow Erik hadn’t anticipated this emergency and made up a rucksack. They rushed past darkened houses, shouting all the while that the Shadow had come to Bjarheim, and casting fearful looks at the sky.

“Where are we going? Is there somewhere safe in the city center?” Erik asked, puffing to keep up. The Frays were a hardy lot; even the twins, Jarno and Kjesten, kept up their speed without complaining.

“No. West. The Shadow is in the east, so we’re to head west, to a gathering place in the hills. Now save your breath and be quiet!”

Erik did as he was told, stealing glances at Kari as they ran along the edge of Bjarheim, toward the western gate. That was the nearest place they could pierce the fae wall—it glowed happily, Erik was pleased to see—but the gate would never be open at this hour, would it?

Some other folk had joined their pack, sickeningly few in number; Erik couldn’t believe that they weren’t going house to house, waking and warning everyone. By the time Erik and the Frays reached the west gate, there were maybe another half-dozen folk racing along with them.

They stopped to catch their breath, casting wary glances skyward. The moon had shifted along the sky a bit, and if anything seemed even dimmer than before. Erik wondered what the Shadow would be like, if it came upon them; was it like the siktar, a creeping dimness that struck men down on contact? Or did it have some other nature entirely? Would they all go mad at once, or slowly?

After a few minutes, when they’d caught their breath, Sannfred Fray approached the fae wall where it met the actual wooden gate itself. Just beside the gate, he pushed his hand into the fae wall, and for a moment nothing happened. Erik wondered if Sannfred was doing some magic. He wasn’t an ironspeaker, or—“It’ll only be open a moment, so rush through or we’ll have t’ go through this again,” he growled at them.

“Go through what—” Erik blurted, before Sannfred grabbed him by the arm and hurled him at the fae wall. Erik expected to bounce off it as usual, but instead it caught him like slow molasses. He drifted through it, trying to breathe through the strange violet force that pressed in on all sides. In seconds, he was outside of Bjarheim, and fell heavily onto the thick grass beyond the fae wall.

All the Frays except Sannfred and Kari made it through before the fae wall emitted a strange snapping sound. Sannfred yanked his hand away, cursing, and then put his hand on the fae wall again. In another few moments, Kari pushed through, followed by Sannfred himself and three more folk. Then the fae wall snapped once more, leaving a double-handful of other folk trapped inside the city.

“What about them?” Erik asked, pained to see them left behind.

“There’ll be someone who can open the hole just as I did. It’s a one-way passage, lets you escape the city even when th’ gate’s closed. No way back in now.” There was a note of melancholy in his voice. Erik tried not to dwell on what it might mean.

The road west from Bjarheim was packed dirt, and straight as an arrow. The Frays, Erik, and the other three folk set out upon it at once. His feet were starting to hurt, his stomach growled, and his throat felt parched. Kari, stepping close to him for the first time all night—in weeks—offered him her bottle. He drank gratefully, but was careful not to take too much. She said nothing else, though, leaving Erik as perplexed as ever. What in the hells was this? Did she hate him now? Was this about Remy?

By the time dawn cracked the sky behind them, the road had sloped upward into the Fohrvast, the grassy hills that led to the coast. Sannfred and Gaelle Fray led them all to a ridge that looked out back over the city.

The sun was just now coming up on the other side of Bjarheim. The city looked so vast and incomprehensible from here, yet so small, nestled among the green fields. Erik saw the towers in the middle of the city: the Cathedral, the ironspeakers’ guild hall, the vast merchant halls and palaces of the wealthy. He watched as the dim malaise that hovered above Bjarheim began to spew forth a roiling miasma of darkness. It left a spreading cloud of black embers floating in the sky, and swooped down onto the city, flowing from house to house faster than any man could run, crawling up and down the towers, tainting them with a hideous, visible decay, like watching the corpse of an animal succumb to flies and maggots, stripped down to its bones. The city was not changed, but the Shadow overlay it like a death shroud, showing the deadness within.

The city of Bjarheim fell under shadow’s dominion, and Erik Rain could do nothing but scream despair into the ash-choked sky.


26 March, 2013

Toothless Child (Slight Delay)

The next installment of Bjarheim's Shadow will be a bit late, owing to my son having face-planted onto a brick wall and knocked out a tooth, necessitating an emergency room visit. He's fine, but alas, time was lost.

20 March, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part IV

If you missed it, check out Part I, Part II, and Part III of Bjarheim's Shadow!


A dream of light, violet and painful, caressing his eyes…

Erik blinked away sand and looked up. This wasn’t home; the crack in the ceiling wasn’t there, the one that he’d fallen asleep staring at so many times.

He tried to sit up but a stern hand pushed him back down. He followed the arm up past the shoulder and saw his Da’s face. Unexpectedly, Finnar Rain was smiling. “You’re awake.”

Eric couldn’t speak. He glanced around and brought other shapes into focus. Magnus, thank heavens above, stood by the window. Outside, the light had gone twilight-purple. Father Bernhard loitered at Erik’s feet—was this a bed? “Let me up,” he said, and weakly tried to push his Da’s hand away.

For whatever reason, Finnar let go, and Eric struggled upright. The white stone walls, the tiny window, the simple door… Am I in the Cathedral? This must be the upper chambers. Why did they bring him here? Had… had his home been destroyed? “What happened?”

“You stopped the shadow,” Kari said. Eric swiveled to the other side and realized with a start that she’d been sitting by his side the whole time. Holding his hand, in fact, which explained its warmth. Embarrassed, he almost jerked it away, but instead gripped tighter. He’d never been happier to see someone.

I stopped the shadow… The memories came back piecemeal. They’d been following the ironspeakers… the shadow attacked them… the fae showed up… Aiar… “Where’s the fae?”

“He left,” Magnus said, “as soon as the shadow did. Even though you were still collapsed on the ground, or so Master Halgrin said.” Erik noticed him grinding his fist into his palm. “I’d like to tell that overgrown fae what I think of him for makin’ use of you like that.”

“I—I don’t understand. What did I do?”

Father Bernhard ahemmed. “We don’t understand fae magic very well. They’re so secretive.” He shifted his gaze to Finnar. “What does he know? Did you tell him…” He nodded meaningfully.

“Yeah,” Finnar said. “He’ll be old enough to learn proper soon, anyway. Figured he had a right to know.”

Bernhard harrumphed. “Yes, well, this is why you were not elected Voice.” Finnar glowered silently. “Voice?” What else in the hells don’t I know about? Erik thought.

Father Bernhard sighed and turned his eye upon Erik. “All you need to know, my boy, is that you helped the fae fight off this shadow, this siktar, as they call it. You seem to have suffered no ill effects. So if you will, Sar Rain, please take your son home. It is most irregular to have anyone up here who is not of the Order, let alone the whole lot of you.”

“Give him a bit to recover, man,” Magnus demanded. “He don’t deserve that kind of rudeness.”

“Now see here—” Bernhard began.

“Excuse me,” Erik spoke up, as loudly as he could. It was enough; the others stopped and looked at him. “If I reckon it right, I just had my life put on the line, mainly without my say-so, to help stop some kind of evil I didn’t even know existed until yesterday.”

“Boy,” Finnar said, with a warning tone, and a wary eye toward Bernhard.

Erik ignored him and sat up straighter. “I want to know what in the black bloody hells is going on here! Every ten minutes there’s some monster or magic or other nonsense popping up, and I’ve had it! Someone get to explainin’ or I swear I’ll get a brickbat and lay into the lot of you.” He paused, and glanced at Kari. “Except you.” She grinned, and flushed a little, too.

Finnar’s face had gone all thundery, and Father Bernhard looked terribly affronted. Magnus covered his mouth with his hand and appeared to be shaking—with laughter. It made Erik’s blood rise, but Magnus noticed Erik’s glare, and coughed once politely. “I think my little brother’s right. There’s even some of this I don’t get, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him get into danger without the courtesy of a few words.”

Father Bernhard swiveled his gaze between the two Rain boys, then threw his hands up. “Fine! But let us at least repair to the dining hall. Brother Erglen graciously loaned us his chamber for your recovery, and he is no doubt eager to reclaim it.”

Erik felt a bit wobbly on his feet, but Kari was right at his side to help him hold steady. She didn’t meet his eyes, though; she seemed far away. He wondered where her mother was, and if she’d gotten away from the shadow in time. Well, Kari’d tell him if there was something wrong. Probably.

Down in the Cathedral’s long, narrow, drafty dining hall, Erik propped himself up in the middle of one of the wooden tables. Kari stayed at his right hand, Magnus at his left. Finnar and Father Bernhard sat down opposite. One of the other priests laid out a tray of bread and soup for Erik. He looked put out to be serving someone who wasn’t part of the Order, let alone someone so young, but Erik felt grateful anyway. He ate and drank and listened.

“Sar Finnar and your brother have told me what they told you, about the Shadow and the Conclave,” Father Bernhard began. “Although I gather there were many details omitted. Those can be saved for later, when you are of a more appropriate age.”

“What about the fae, and the ironspeakers? What happened with the shadow, when they tried to fight it? And why did Aiar need me?”

Bernhard grimaced. “That fae… the worst of the lot. Insufferable. The ironspeakers, as you might know, do use a kind of magic in their work. The siktar should have been easy for them to overcome, but it was booby-trapped, somehow. There was some extra twist to it. The ironspeaker’s magic turned back on him, and so did the fae’s, even though their magic is different. You’d have to ask him why he couldn’t manage it without your help.” He snorted, just to show what he thought of the fae’s magical prowess. “Perhaps the Brandrinn could have done it; their magic is altogether unusual.”

“The who?”

“The woodsmen. Surely you’ve heard of them,” Bernhard said.

“Oh. Yes.” Erik had at least seen ironspeakers before, but the woodsmen—the Brandrinn—were practically legendary. Wilders, rangers, men who were not at home around others. They lived and hunted in the forests, ensuring that Bjarheim’s lumbermen didn’t take down too many trees. City folk had an insatiable appetite for wood, and without the woodsmen, the forests would be stripped bare in a generation.

The woodsmen were silent as shadows, quick as snakes, fighters unparalleled. Supposedly. Erik was beginning to suspect that all legends were exaggerations at best, if not outright fabrications.

“The magic that we in the Order use is, again, different. Yet they all spring from a common source. This crawling darkness is from that same source, but twisted, polluted. Just as every man has his good side and his bad, so does magic have a side that seeks only to destroy and plague.”

“But why did Remy bring it here?”

If anyone had been in the habit of dropping pins, Erik could have heard it now. Bernhard and Da both stared at him, open-mouthed. Magnus blinked, confused. Erik turned to Kari. “Didn’t you tell them?”

“They weren’t int’rested,” she muttered.

’Cause you’re a girl, Erik almost said. He’d noticed that. A lot of men didn’t pay attention when womenfolk talked, even when they made good sense. But he’d also seen fathers and husbands cowed by a glare from their wives… Everyone’s insane, he decided.

“Who?” Father Bernhard said at last.

“Remy Thurain,” Erik said. “It was him and his cronies what brought that shadow. I went to Kari’s house and saw that the fae wall was gone—hey, did they fix it?”

“Yeah. Not long after what happened with you and that fae, the fae wall itself came back, like nothing’d ever been wrong.” Magnus shook his head. “I dunno what they did.”

“Where were you?” Erik realized that he was getting off-track, but he had so many different questions.

“I was in the house when the shadow came, but I dropped everything and ran the instant I saw it. Barely made it out.”

“He must have gone another way,” Kari said, “else we would’ve seen him.”

“Yes, yes, enough—” Father Bernhard interrupted. “What did you say about Remy Thurain?”

Erik recounted his visit to Kari’s house: noticing the missing fae wall, seeing Remy and his mates doing whatever it was. “He waved his hands like some kind of spell, and then this spot of black appeared, and the shadow spilled out of it.” He shrugged. “I knew he was no good.” Kari’s hand tightened on his; she was scowling at him. Why? Was it his fault Remy was a no-good traitor?

Bernhard and Da looked at each other. “Remy’s in the Conclave,” Finnar said. “He’d never try to hurt the city.”

“Well we know what we saw!” Erik said, annoyed.

“Perhaps you did not see what you think you saw,” Bernhard said.

“Are you calling me a liar?” Erik planted his fists on the table and began to stand up.

Bernhard held up conciliatory hands. “There must be some misunderstanding. Remy was probably trying to repair the fae wall, or stop whatever created the shadow. We must find him and ask him.” Finnar nodded, looking—scared? How could Da ever look scared? Da was a mountain, imperturbable. Erik would as soon expect the ground itself to look scared.

“Fine. What happened to the shadow? What did that fae do to me?”

“I kin tell ya,” said what sounded like a chunk of gravel. Erik looked up and saw a wide man with a leather apron standing at the end of the table. The apron was inscribed with a circle pierced by an arrow. An ironspeaker! Erik thought he recognized him from the street.

“Master Halgrin,” Father Bernhard said, rising and bowing slightly. Finnar and Magnus followed suit.

The ironspeaker slid onto the bench next to Bernhard. “Fae magic’s got what ye call resonance. Makes nearby folk ring like bells, magically speakin’. But if ye use magic regular, like we do, ye’re all clogged up with it. Ye won’t ring like ye should. A lad like ye who ain’t ever touched magic, well, he’ll be clean’s a whistle. The resonance purifies a fae’s magic.”

“What happened to the ironspeaker, the first one who tried to stop it?” Erik said. “I saw him… collapse.”

Master Halgrin’s face closed up. “That’s Oddr. He ain’t well. Was gibberin’ mad last I saw him.” The ironspeaker shook his head. “Had ta see to him first, ’fore I came here.” His eyes, black and beady, focused on Erik. “I ain’t never seen a resonance clean as yours. Ye blasted that shadow clear out o’ Bjarheim, like it’d never even been. Rolled up on itself an’ vanished.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Erik insisted. “That fae just grabbed me, and there was light, and then I was here.”

Halgrin cackled. “Ha! No braggin’ there. Got more sense than a lot o’ grown men.”

“Don’t be too quick to praise him,” Bernhard said. “He accused Remy Thurain of summoning the shadow.”

Halgrin shrugged. “Stranger things.”

“Not you too!”

“I dinnae Remy from me arse,” Halgrin said. “All I know’s his family’s from off south. Belj.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Bernhard countered. “Remy’s father and grandfather were both born in Bjarheim.”

Halgrin waved dismissively. “Afore that. Thurains’re from Belj. Old family. Look it up.” He stood. “Got too much t’do. Good work, lad.” He gave Erik a curt, possibly approving nod, and tromped away.

Bernhard seemed as flustered as Halgrin had been calm. “Enough!” He gestured irritably at Finnar. “Take your boy home. See that he stays out of trouble.”

“I’ll be fourteen in two months,” Erik said. “Magnus said that’s when men can join the Conclave.”

“If you have half the sense Master Halgrin thinks you do, you’ll wait until you’re quite a bit older than that. Fourteen. Rubbish.” He stood and chivvied the lot of them to the entry. “The Conclave meets at second bell tomorrow,” he said to Finnar. “Someone had best find Remy Thurain before that.” He slammed the Cathedral’s door.

Finnar grumbled and stared up at the sky. Magnus took Erik by the shoulder and steered him away. “He’s right. You’re too young for this, even if you did deserve some answers. Let’s go home.” When Kari made to follow, Magnus put a hand up. “You run on home, make sure your family’s all right. I’ll take care of little brother.”

Erik wanted to argue, but Magnus had put on his Grown-Up Voice. He’d be stubborner than a donkey, and might even resort to physically carrying Erik off. Erik wanted to give Kari’s hand one last squeeze, but Magnus was already hustling him away. The adventure, for the moment, was over.

Two weeks passed. Erik wandered about in a stupor. He couldn’t shake the memories: that violet light; seeing Remy ripping a black hole in the air; the black siktar overcoming that poor ironspeaker. No one would tell him if the man was all right. It wasn’t his concern, they all said. To the hells with them! I’m old enough.

And Kari. She’d been avoiding him, never home when he went to find her, except late at night. Missus Fray always chased him off, saying he should be home in bed just as Kari was. He crawled up to her window, but it was dark inside, and he couldn’t bring himself to knock.

He found her one day at the stalls in Parnir Square, browsing cheap jewelry. She barely said a word, and ran off. Once he saw her from a distance, outside Master Annarson’s; the old trader handed her a package and sent her running. Erik asked Annarson where he’d sent her, but the old man waved him away and said to mind his own business.

Magnus left for the mines again. Finnar was gone every night, seeing to Conclave business. The Shadow wasn’t coming, Finnar said. They’d studied the augurs, and things were calm now. So why is Da off with them so much?

Ten nights after Magnus left, Erik sat in front of the fire, chewing on day-old bread. Da hadn’t come back yet. Erik hadn’t had the energy to make a real dinner.

He considered trying to find Kari again. She was the only one he could talk to, now that Magnus was gone, but she wouldn’t—

A rapid knock on the door startled Erik. “Who’s there?”

“It is I,” came an imperious voice. When he recognized it, a moment later, Erik’s jaw went slack. “Aiar?” He went to the door and pulled it open a crack.

The tall fae glared impatiently. “Will you admit me?” he asked in something approaching politeness—or perhaps just polite in comparison to his usual disdain.

“Uh… my Da’s not here…”

“I care not. I am here to speak with you.”

“Oh. Uh, come in.” He’d barely pulled the door open before Aiar shoved through it. The fae hissed at the fire, and stayed away from it. Erik shut the door and took a moment to examine the fae; he’d never really had the chance before. Aiar had hair like pale sand, flowing around his ears and tied back with a leather strap. His clothes were plain and patched. Where he walked, the claws on his feet added their own distinctive grooves to the countless scratches on the floorboards.

It seemed impolite to sit while Aiar still stood, so Erik stayed on his feet. “What do you want?”

“When I used you to dispel the siktar, I sensed that you had in you a great capacity for magic. It was fortunate that you have not been trained. I cannot imagine why the vapid priests of the Order have not claimed you, but their loss is my gain.”

“Um. Okay.”

“I wish to study you, before you are tainted by the magics of the Order, or those useless ironspeakers. Perhaps you might join the Brandrinn someday. That might be a worthy fate.”

Erik tensed. “’Study?’”

Aiar sighed elaborately. “I will do you no harm. I will merely probe your mind with mine. You will feel nothing.”

“My Da won’t like it if he finds you here. He’s never said much good about the fae,” Erik said, realizing too late that maybe it wasn’t a bright idea to insult Aiar to his face.

He didn’t seem to care. “If your father has a tenth the sense he should, he will not object. Now, let us begin. I do not have all night.”

Something snapped, and all Erik’s deference vanished in an instant. “What do I get in return?”

Aiar looked as if Erik had spat in his face. “What?

“You poke around in my skull, you pay for it.”

“We don’t deal in your coin!”

“I don’t want coin. Hardly done me good before. I want information.”

Aiar gritted his teeth. They looked like human teeth, but the canines were needle-sharp. “I have had more than enough of being questioned by menfolk in my long, long life,” Aiar said.

Erik crossed his arms. “Take it or leave it.”

“Agh!” Aiar slapped his hands together in frustration. “Enough delay! Tell me what you want to know.”

“Down in the cave, you said you could sense the Shadow. The big one, not the siktar. So I figure, if anyone would know, you would. What is the Shadow?

Aiar narrowed his eyes. “Do not ask questions to which you would rather not know the answers.”

“I’ll take my chances.” Erik stared, defiant.

“Fine.” Aiar paused, and then, to Erik’s surprise, sat down. “The Shadow. Em Salkatar, we call it. It is the infernal union of madness and death itself.”


12 March, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part III

If you missed it, check out Part I and Part II of Bjarheim's Shadow!


Erik sprinted away from the spreading shadow, but after a few steps he jerked to a halt. Kari! What am I doing? He turned back, then flinched as she shot past him.

“Why’re you stopping?” she shouted.

“I—wait—” He cursed and followed, sparing a glance backward. Missus Fray galumphed down the street after them, not making a patch on their speed, but clearly staying ahead of the shadow. “Go!” she called. The shadow had already spread over the first houses at the end of the lane, as if some giant had blotted out the sun, despite the cloudless blue sky.

A stream of folk began to drain away from the edge of the city as shouts went up. Erik nimbly danced between them, keeping Kari in his sights. Thankfully, she glanced back and slowed a little when she saw how far behind he was. When he came abreast, he clamped his hand in hers. She shot him a surprised glance, but did not pull away.

They made for Erik’s house. It was further into the city, but if the shadow kept spreading, his home would be engulfed in minutes.

When they rounded the corner into the lane, Erik stopped short. His house, and those on either side of it, were already covered in a deep shadow. “No… Magnus!” He blindly ran forward, but something twisted his arm back.

Kari, of course. She still held tight to his hand. Magnus… He must have gotten out…

“It’s coming from everywhere,” Kari said, just as Erik began to think the same thing. “Where’s your Da?”

“The Conclave. At the Cathedral.” He glanced at the shadow again. It had spread into the street and was closing on them at an alarming rate. My home… Magnus… “Let’s go,” he choked out, and turned his back on it. The markets, the Cathedral, Riverwatch… Someone there would know what to do.

The Shadow had come without warning. And with Remy’s help! Why in all the hells there were would Remy ever do such a thing? Why would he want to destroy Bjarheim?

Erik and Kari ran, leaving the shadow behind. They came to a street clogged with people; there was no getting through. Kari leapt up on the tall base of a fae lamp and peered over their heads. “Flipped cart or something. People arguing. I can’t tell.” She hopped down. “Gotta be another way.”

“Maybe Thorn Street,” Erik said, uncertain. He knew the city well, but he’d never had to find a different route from his home to the Cathedral. Not that he couldn’t, but what if those streets were clogged too? What if they had to find a way… another way…

“The fae tunnels,” he said, grabbing Kari’s hand.

“What? We can’t!”

“Got a better plan?” he shouted as they ran from the clog. On the next lane, he stopped between two old houses. A small shack stood between them, with a rickety door that groaned when he yanked it open. There was no floor, just a ragged hole, with a terrifyingly ancient ladder descending into darkness.

“This is bad,” Kari said. “The fae don’t like trespassers.”

“It’s an emergency,” Erik said. “And it’s their magic what failed! They better fix this.”

“Oh, sure. Lecture ’em while they eat our bones,” Kari said, only half in jest.

Erik carefully swung onto the ladder. It creaked, making his stomach lurch, but held. He went down as fast as he dared, and sighed relief when his foot landed on hard dirt. Kari followed, cursing when she bumped into him in the dimness.

The only light leaked from the hole above; twenty feet into the tunnel, they were in near blackness. Erik felt along the wall with one hand, keeping Kari’s hand tight in his other. That tingle came back whenever they touched. He felt his heart racing in his chest; was it the fear, or her?

“Hello?” he shouted. There was no reply. The tunnel floor dipped and weaved so much that he had no idea which way he was facing now. He’d been here once before, on a dare, and hadn’t made it fifty feet before chickening out and turning back. Of course, he’d told everyone he’d had tea with the fae. “They ain’t scary at all,” he’d lied.

Well, he was going to meet them now. Then what? Were the stories true? The fae couldn’t be some sort of violent cannibal race; they treated with menfolk all the time, Erik knew that much. It was their magic that kept the city safe, as much to protect themselves as the humans living above. But even allies might not take kindly to unexpected visitors. Even if the Shadow really was in Bjarheim.

Erik began to notice thin violet striations in the tunnel walls, giving light so faint that at first he thought he was imagining it. “It’s like the fae wall,” Kari said, and stepped away for a moment to touch the purple lines glowing in the wall. “They’re cold.”

Erik didn’t want to touch them. He just wanted Kari’s hand back. “Come on. If there’s light here, we must be getting close to… something.”

The violet lines grew brighter as they went. Abruptly they came around a sharp bend, and the tunnel opened onto a vast cavern. The floor dropped away before them. There seemed to be nowhere to go.

Kari leaned out over the abyss, heedless of the drop. Erik wasn’t afraid of heights, but a sensible person should be more cautious. “Somethin’ down there,” Kari said. Erik gulped and looked down. Figures moved, and he could make out something like voices. It was hard to tell.

“Look! A path.” Kari pointed. Sure enough, the tunnel floor angled around a protruding rock face and curved away down the side of the cavern. It was narrow enough to walk safely. Barely.

Before Erik could object, Kari began sidling along the precipice. Erik licked dry lips and went after her. Keep your eyes on her, he told himself. At least that part was easy.

The path stayed gratifyingly even. About halfway down, he heard shouts, and looked down again. The floor was a lot closer now, and his nerves settled a bit. The shapes below were pointing up at them. “We shoulda knocked,” he said.

Whoever they were, they didn’t start throwing rocks or casting spells at Erik and Kari. The path widened, much to Erik’s relief, as they descended the last few feet to the cavern floor.

And there, at the foot of the path, Erik at last met the fae.

They were men, as a child’s fancy might invent them: tall and spindly, their skin a pale, bluish-gray; their noses sharp and their eyes large. Their irises coruscated like oil floating on water. They wore clothes, like any ordinary men and women might: shirts, vests, trousers, blouses, dresses. No boots, though; their feet were scaly and clawed, like lizards’. Their mouths were wide, wrapping almost all the way around their faces.

And to a one, they were greatly agitated. A crowd of ten or twelve had gathered, while others stood farther off, hopping from foot to foot and wringing their hands.

“Um, hello,” Erik said. “Sorry to intrude, but, um, your wall—the fae wall, up above? It’s vanished.” He paused; none of the fae before him said anything. They just stared, blinking periodically. “And, um, there’s this sort of shadow—”

“We felt nothing. I felt nothing,” the tallest of the fae said, his voice booming and echoing across the chamber. It was surprisingly deep, given how thin-chested the fae man was. He glanced accusatorily at his fellows. One of them shrugged; another, with long, glassy white hair, growled and yanked a knife from his belt, shouting incoherently—no, wait, it was some kind of language. Is that what fae-speech sounded like?

The tall fae who’d spoken first made a curt chopping motion at the knife-wielding fae, who grunted and put his knife away, then rudely shoved off through the crowd.

“What was that?” Kari whispered to Erik.

“Thiktim is always angry,” the tall fae said, startling them both. Erik hadn’t thought he’d be able to hear Kari, and apparently Kari hadn’t either; her hand squeezed his so hard it began to hurt. “Hah. He will demand things later.” The tall fae swiveled his eyes back to the human intruders. “The isnikt wall is my only concern. We would feel it, if it had been harmed.”

“Well it’s gone, I promise you,” Erik said. Why would they doubt him? “And then these blokes came and did some kind of magic, and the Shadow, it’s here now—”

“The Shadow is not here.” The tall fae glanced up at the ceiling, but Erik thought he meant to look at the sky. “It is still far to the east. I feel it there.”

“We saw a shadow, I swear,” Kari said, stepping forward. Bravely, Erik thought. “It came from this—this hole of darkness that Rem—that they conjured up. Spreading along the ground like someone spilled a barrel of hot tar.”

The tall fae looked affronted, then laughed. Rudely. “That is not the Shadow. That is a siktar. Of minor concern. If you are not lying.” He sniffed the air. “You smell deceitful.”

“She’s no such thing!” Erik said. He quailed a little when the tall fae raised an eyebrow at him, but stood his ground.

“The siktar is poisonous but not deadly,” the tall fae said. The other fae around him seemed to thrum agreement. “It would not do to let it drift down here. I do not suppose your ironspeakers are handling it?” At their blank looks, he sighed. “Fine. We will deal with it. And we will investigate your claim about the isnikt wall, as well.” He addressed the other fae. “Do you see? The Bargain was a mistake.”

Some of the other fae adopted looks of concern, embarrassment, or outrage. “What bargain?” Erik whispered to Kari. She shook her head.

The tall fae spun back around. “What Bargain?” he shouted. “You have the effrontery to—to—” He began shouting at them incoherently; but no, it was that fae-speech again. Erik eyed the pathway, considering a run for the surface. Even that shadow, that—siktar? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be as bizarre as this.

“We’re sorry,” Kari said over the fae’s rant. “We’re just kids. We don’t know about any bargain.” She still squeezed Erik’s hand so hard he thought it might break. He prayed she wouldn’t let go.

“Go. You are not welcome here.” The tall fae barely contained his fury. Erik started backing up; Kari stood firm for a moment. “Wait,” she said. “Will you tell us your name?”

“NO!” the tall fae shouted. “GET OUT!”

The climb upward was not nearly as terrifying to Erik, mainly because he was so disoriented from whatever the tall fae had been talking about. Bargain, siktar, isnikt… everything was multiplying. When had Da been planning to tell him about all this? Why hadn’t Magnus? I hope that big lump is all right, Erik thought, even as angry as he was.

Well, if the fae was telling the truth, then this siktar wasn’t going to kill them all… but Erik still didn’t like the looks of it.

They reached the top of the cavern and returned to the tunnels, passing from the faint violet glow and into darkness again. Much sooner than Erik expected, they saw light ahead, and the ladder.

But when they emerged into daylight, he realized that they were in a very different part of the city. “We’re close to the Cathedral,” Kari said, having come to the same conclusion. There were no crowds here blocking the way.

“And to Da. He’d better explain all this. Come on.” Da was going to explain, or Erik would… would… Would what? You going to make him? With those skinny arms? Erik grumbled at the sensible voice.

They raced along. Even if he couldn’t find Da, the priests at the Cathedral would be able to explain, wouldn’t they? Father Bernhard or one of the others…

Erik stumbled to a halt when he saw a crowd of men striding down the street toward them. Bulky men, all wearing identical leather aprons, inscribed with an arrow-pierced black circle—“Ironspeakers!” Kari said, breathing hard. She’d let go of his hand while they’d been running, but now her fingers laced into his again. Even amidst all the confusion and fear, Erik felt that tingle return. Maybe everything about Remy had been a bad dream, something Kari already regretted—She must, after what Remy did with that shadow, right?

Erik focused on the group of ironspeakers; a dozen or so of them, it looked like. Anything made of metal came from the ironspeakers; they could craft the most intricate metalwork using just their hands and voice. It was some sort of magic, anyway. They didn’t let outsiders watch them work. But every runner in Bjarheim had, one time or another, huddled up against the warm wall of an ironspeaker’s forge, listening in the quiet dark for the deep songs that rumbled from within. Songs you could never forget, that you could never duplicate, no matter how hard you tried. Whatever they did in there, they did sing. “Maybe they’re gonna fight that shadow,” Erik said.

Kari shrugged. “With what? They got no weapons. Or even tools.”

“I dunno, but let’s see. I’m dead sick of bein’ in the dark.”

The group of ironspeakers was halfway to the edge of the city when they came to a stop. Erik’s stomach lurched when he saw the shadow, the siktar, roiling toward them again.

One of the ironspeakers grunted something at his mates, then walked off alone to meet the spreading shadow. He knelt down, and began to sing.

It was just as Erik remembered: the bass hum flowed through his bones, but somehow here it was louder, purer, even though the ironspeaker was a hundred yards off. Kari climbed up onto a fae lamp-post to get a better look; Erik followed.

The shadow continued its slow crawl, and as it came up to the ironspeaker, he put his hand out to touch it.

The shadow recoiled from the ironspeaker’s hand, then struck like a viper at his face.

The ironspeaker’s song cut off with a cruel disharmony, like a music-box smashed with a hammer. The man collapsed to the ground. The shadow flowed over him, unimpeded.

Kari gasped. Erik clung to the fae lamp, riveted.

The other ironspeakers shouted with alarm and spread out into a line. They began to sing, and their hum filled the air, making Erik’s whole being vibrate. He thought he was going to burst.

The shadow spilled onward, and for a moment Erik thought they would defeat it—

“Stop!” someone bellowed. Erik looked across the road at a group of fae standing there. Leading them, his arm outstretched, stood the tall fae they’d met down below.

The ironspeakers faltered. A few of them took tentative steps back from the shadow. “It is a trap,” the tall fae said, striding forward. “Your magic will poison you.” He brushed past the ironspeakers and gazed down at the shadow. It seemed to have slowed at his approach. “Hm,” he said, and pointed a finger at it.

The shadow recoiled again, but this time it did not strike. It hovered there, waiting. Then, with a loud pop, it sprayed a stream of black liquid into the air.

The tall fae jerked aside, barely dodging it. Some of the liquid splashed on the boots of one of the ironspeakers behind him, and the leather began to sizzle and smoke. The ironspeaker shrieked, flailing to kick his boots off.

The fae ignored him. “I see now. It cannot be stopped with normal means! I need one who is untainted by magic…” He turned, scanning the street, and his eyes landed upon Erik, high up on the pole. The fae’s eyes wrinkled in satisfaction, then widened suddenly in alarm. “You!”

Erik hopped down from the pole. “What does he want?” Kari asked, following him down.

“Of course it would be you,” the tall fae hissed, having covered the distance between them in seconds. He blatted something in fae-speech that sounded like a curse. “Come.” He grabbed Erik’s arm and dragged him over toward the shadow.

“Stop!” Kari shouted. “What are you doing to him?”

The tall fae ignored her. He stopped at the edge of the shadow and spun Erik to face him. “You will see a purple ball of light before you. Direct it into the shadow.”

“What? How?” Erik said, perplexed. He hadn’t the faintest idea what the fae meant.

“It will be obvious!” the fae shouted. “Now hurry!” He pointed at the shadow again, which had begun to creep forward once more.

Erik stood paralyzed. He watched as a ball of light coalesced out of the air before him. “Now!” the tall fae said.

Erik reached out tentatively, then stopped. He swiveled to look up at the fae. “No. Tell me your name first.”

“Now is not the time!” the fae shouted at him.

Erik crossed his arms. He’d been bullied enough by people he knew. He wasn’t about to let this idiot… thing order him around.

The tall fae glared daggers. “Fine. My name is Aiar. Now do as I told you!”

Erik turned back to the violet light. He reached out and, for lack of a better idea, stuck his finger into the ball. It pulsed brightly, sending waves of ice cascading up his arm. He shivered, but held still. Direct it into the shadow, Aiar had said.

Erik had no idea what that meant. He glared at the ball. Well? Move!

Without warning, the ball lurched forward and down, colliding with the shadow. A tremendous flash of light blinded Erik; he threw his arm over his eyes as a colossal blast hurled him to the paving stones, and into darkness.


05 March, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part II

If you missed it, check out Part I of Bjarheim's Shadow!


“What on Earth is the Conclave?” Erik asked, glancing back and forth between his father and brother. “Is it that meeting you went to, Da?”

Finnar nodded, but said nothing. Magnus took a last swig of ale and clanked the mug down on the table. “The Conclave is made of all the grown goodfolk of Bjarheim. Mostly men, and some womenfolk too. The Conclave doesn’t even meet unless there’s danger.”

“Are you part of it?” Erik said.

Magnus shook his head. “I could be, but I’m never here.” He looked ashamed by this, and Erik was annoyed by it too. Magnus had said he’d come back and visit, but he rarely did. The mines were too productive, he’d said; he had too much to oversee to come all the way back to Bjarheim regularly.

But he was here now, and that must mean it was important. “Go on,” Erik urged.

“They don’t run the city, the way the Elder Council does. The only thing the Conclave deals with is the Shadow.”

“What shadow?” Erik asked, burning with curiosity. A heavy sense of unreality had settled around him, even though he hardly knew anything yet. Erik glanced at his father. Da never said much, not with words. His eyes could speak volumes. Frustration, disappointment, disapproval… Erik pushed the memories away.

Magnus went on. “There is a great and evil Shadow that lurks out past the Skarstand range. No one knows what it really is, but every so often, it begins to move. The Conclave’s job is to make sure it doesn’t hurt Bjarheim.”

“Hurt how?”

Finnar spoke up, so suddenly that Erik winced. “Turns crops black. Sheep and goats drop dead of fright. Drives men mad if they spend too long in it.” He shook his head. “Destroys everything.”

Erik glanced at the door, worrying for a moment that this Shadow might come creeping through it any moment. “Won’t the fae wall protect us?”

Finnar had fallen silent again, so Magnus piped up. “The fae wall is part of what keeps us safe, yeah. But it’s not enough, not by itself. The priests, and the ironspeakers, and the woodsmen, and the fae all need to work together to stop the Shadow.”

“S’late,” Finnar said, and lumbered out of his chair. “Get to bed.”

Erik would never normally gainsay his father, but he’d barely learned anything about these new mysteries yet. “But Da, I’m hardly tired. I can—”

“To bed,” Finnar gritted out. “Y’need to learn to listen, boy.” He tromped off.

“I’ll tell you more tomorrow,” Magnus whispered, ruffling Erik’s hair. Erik hated that, but he was too excited by the whole evening to care much. He hurried upstairs to his room and washed up.

He couldn’t sleep, though, and sat on the edge of his little bed. It was sized for a child half his age. His feet stuck out past the end these days. Da had said he’d get a new one made, when Erik became a man.

Erik felt his yearning for that day troweled over with a thick sludge of trepidation. Is this what manhood meant? Being yoked to responsibility? How could he have fun running around Bjarheim if he had to worry about this Shadow?

He stared out the window to the east, off toward the Skarstands, not that you could make them out in the blackness. Even on clear days, the haze usually rendered those jagged peaks no more than phantoms in the distance. But they towered in his mind’s eye.

The Shadow. Some sort of evil monstrosity out there beyond those peaks, beyond where Magnus ran his mines, waiting to come devour them all. This couldn’t be the first time the Shadow had threatened Bjarheim, he decided; the city was hundreds of years old, and this Conclave seemed to be well-known. Among the grown-ups, anyway. How had he never heard of it? Grown-ups were terrible at keeping secrets around children, he’d always thought. Thought wrong, apparently.

In the morning Magnus took him down to the market to fetch groceries. Erik peppered him with questions the whole way. There was still so much to learn about the Shadow, and what the Conclave was going to do about it.

“It doesn’t come regularly,” Magnus said, stepping aside to let a matron and her brood trail past. He chewed on a bit of jerky as they walked. “Last time was more’n a hundred years ago. Men’d forget, if the priests didn’t keep th’ seeds of the Conclave running.”

“But what is the Shadow?”

“Nobody knows. It’s always been there, so the legends say.” They came up to a big wooden shack that smelled of blood. Magnus fished some coins out of his pocket and pressed them into Erik’s hand. “Run and get bread. I’ve got to bargan with the butcher.”

Erik wandered toward the baker’s hut, at the far end of the bustling market. The sun beat down today, and it felt good. Almost enough to make him forget about—

“Well, well,” a voice drawled behind him. “Look who’s here.”

Erik winced and turned slowly. Remy Thurain stood on the path before him, sneering, his black hair pulled back tight in a knot. Three or four other lads hovered around him, giving dirty looks to passerby, and to Erik. Mostly to Erik.

“What do you want?” Erik asked, wary. Remy had a bad reputation among the urchins. He and his goons would beat and rob the littler ones when the fancy took them. What burned Erik up was that Remy was rich! Fine silks, mink-fur coats, gold rings. What did he need with some urchin’s fivence?

Brigand or no, the girls all adored him. Handsome and rich. Erik hated him.

“Thought you ought to know, I took your little girl down to Riverwatch last night.” His leer made Erik’s fists ball up, but Remy was older and bigger. Erik wasn’t sure he could take the scum in a fight, let alone with a fistful of cronies backing him up.

“No accounting for taste,” Erik said, sidling back until he bumped into the edge of a farmer’s cart. The thick market crowd had mysteriously dissipated away from them.

Remy stepped forward. “Oh, I had a taste,” he said.

Before he realized what he was doing, Erik swung at the bastard’s face. Remy was just far enough away to dodge easily. He smacked Erik on the side of the head and shoved him down to the cobbles. Erik tried to get up, but Remy’s cronies closed in around him, jeering and kicking at his ribs.

Erik scrambled under the cart, flailing his legs at the hands that tried to drag him back. The goons bent down and hurled insults and clods of dirt at him, but apparently it was too much effort to actually give chase.

They wandered off after a while. Erik sat under the cart, brushing the dirt from his clothes and imagining all the horrible things he’d do to Remy. Why did Kari have to go with him to Riverwatch? Just because he asked?

He realized after a while that someone was calling his name. Erik crawled out and rose to meet Magnus striding toward him. “What in the hells were you doing under there?” his brother demanded. “Where’s the bread?”

“I haven’t got it yet,” Erik snapped. “That dung-eater Remy and his stooges found me.”

Magnus started and looked around, as if he might find the perpetrators. Seeing none, he turned back to his brother. “Well you’re all dirtied now. Come on, let’s get the bread and get home.”

“I don’t want to go home,” Erik said. “I want to go find Kari.” And tell her what Remy had done. Let’s see how she likes him then!

Magnus shook his head. “You’d best give up on her, brother. If she’s making time with the likes of Remy, she doesn’t deserve a good lad like you. Anyway, I can’t carry all this myself.”

Erik sullenly followed Magnus to the baker and helped carry the loaves home. He left his brother at the door and jogged back out into the lane. He had to go find Kari. Magnus didn’t get it; she wasn’t just some girl.

She lived only a few streets away, near the edge of the city. They’d spent countless evenings up on her roof, talking late, staring out at the fae wall that protected Bjarheim from the beasts beyond.

He approached her house, and looked past it, out at the green fields beyond the edge of the city. Green. Too green; not tinted violet, like always.

The fae wall, that’d he’d seen every day of his life, was gone.

He’d left the city a few times; always during the day, of course. Venturing out at night was suicide. A lot of animals, big ones, lived in the forests beyond the fields. Without the fae wall, they’d venture into the city and wreak havoc. The fae wall kept them back, and kept Bjarheim safe. Normally it stretched upward a dozen paces above a waist-high brickwork.

Now there was nothing. A few other folk had gathered in the street near where Erik had skidded to a halt. They muttered worriedly. Erik thought to maybe ask some of the older, sturdier-looking folk what it meant. Surely the beasts wouldn’t come to the city in broad daylight, even if the fae wall was gone. But come night…

He got moving again and loped the last yards to Kari’s house. The door hung open, and Kari’s mum came out, hanging up the wash to dry in the yard. “Morning, Missus Fray,” Erik said, ducking his head.

She beamed at him. “Why, little Erik Rain, I haven’t seen you in a dog’s age! Kari was just talking about you this morning, although I’m sure she wouldn’t want me saying that, I know how you young men get big heads. Come help me string these up, don’t just stand there like a lump. You wouldn’t be here if you had any real work to do, you don’t fool me…”

Erik wanted to go in and find Kari, but Missus Fray never shut up, so he helped her for a few minutes before he was able to get in a word. “Is Kari home?”

“She’s upstairs, but I don’t reckon she’ll want to talk. Nothing to do with you, I don’t think. She came home last night in a fit! I was up late, and she tried to sneak in, and I stung her backside to remind her not to do that again, you mark my words. Oh, well, it’s not as bad as all that, but you know, you can’t let children just run around, especially when they’re nearly grown and ought to know better…”

“Yes, excuse me,” Erik said, and dodged another volley of words as he ran into the house. “Kari?” he shouted up the stairs. “It’s Erik. Can I come up?” He went up one or two steps, half expecting Missus Fray to come chasing after him.

Kari peeked over the upper railing. She looked terribly cross. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to see—if you were all right,” he changed course mid-sentence. She looked awful, like she’d been crying, and not from a paddled bottom. Kari was too tough for that to bother her. One time she’d deliberately provoked her mum into paddling her, and pretended to cry, but then as soon as Missus Fray was out of earshot, she and Erik climbed onto the roof and had a good laugh about it.

This wasn’t that. He urgently wanted to go up and hold her, but bells went off in his head. “The fae wall’s gone!” he said, startling himself.

Kari jerked upright. “What?” She dashed to the window and looked out. “I can’t see—come on.” She vanished over the upper railing. Erik bounded up the stairs after her, his heart lurching with every step. This should feel more like adventure, and less like terror, he groused.

The window in Kari’s bedroom hung open. He crawled out of it—that window was getting smaller by the day, he could swear—and onto the roof of the adjacent house. He sidled along the edge until he could reach the lower roof of Kari’s house, over the front yard. He heard scraping up above and saw Kari’s foot vanish. He might be able to match her for running speed, but she could climb like no one’s business.

He pulled himself up the chimney’s jagged masonry and swung around onto the upper roof. Kari stood there, gazing at the edge of Bjarheim.

The fae wall was still gone, as far as the eye could see, along the entire edge of Bjarheim. Erik shivered.

“What does it mean?” Kari said softly.

Erik moved up beside her, keeping a good arm’s length between them. “I don’t know. I saw some folk in the street, looking gobsmacked. Have you ever heard of the fae wall being gone?”

Kari shook her head. “Never in my whole life.” She turned to scan the city behind them, and Erik did too. Some of the taller houses and buildings toward the middle of the city obscured their view of the farther parts of Bjarheim, but the violet glow of the fae wall wasn’t visible anywhere.

“Maybe the Conclave has something to do with it,” he muttered.

He winced a moment later when he realized Kari was staring at him. “The what?” she said.

“They haven’t told you yet?” Typical parents. Monstrous evils about to attack the city, and the grown-ups thought he and his friends didn’t even need to know. Well, Da had, but not Mister and Missus Fray.

He told her everything Magnus had told him about the Conclave and the Shadow. Kari gazed out toward the Skarstands as he spoke, as if she might see the Shadow itself lurking among the peaks.

“It sounds like there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said.

Her good sense and practicality annoyed him. “How dare you imagine that we’re not to be heroes in all this,” he said.

She glanced over at him, her lips pursed tight. “D’you think they hid it from us because they’re just trying to be mean?” she said, and her tone made Erik almost take a step back. He glanced back at the edge of the roof, only half a step away.

“No, I just—” He looked down at the street just then and saw a group of young men striding toward the wall.

Remy led them.

Kari had her back to them, so Erik grabbed her arm and yanked her down prone onto the roof. “What in the hells!” she yelped at him.

He clapped a hand over her mouth and pointed. She scrambled around and looked down at Remy and his goons strolling along in no hurry at all.

“They’re going toward the fae wall—or, er, where it used to be,” Erik said. He glanced over at Kari. “He attacked me at the market this morning.” Well, Erik had taken the first swing, after being provoked. Same difference. “Nearly split my lip.”

Kari turned to look at him. Her auburn curls seemed less bouncy than usual, as if her mood had brought them low. Erik ventured, “He said you and he… at Riverwatch…”

Kari frowned at him and opened her mouth to speak, but there came a hideous shriek. Erik awkwardly clamped his hands over his ears as the shriek carried on and on. When it began to fade, he looked down at where the fae wall used to be. Remy and his friends stood there. The goons were all facing into the city, as if guarding Remy’s back. The ringleader himself stood before the low wall, moving his hands in some kind of strange ritual.

“What in the hells is he doing?” Kari said. Erik shook his head and watched.

The shriek had barely faded to nothing, when out of nowhere a black disc appeared in the air before Remy. It stretched and contorted, reflecting no light and blurring everything around it. Remy stepped back and waited. After a few more seconds, he said something to his fellows, and they all turned and ran back into the city, away from the black disk.

Erik had never seen anything like it. It slowly expanded its bounds like some sort of living thing. After a minute, it had doubled in size.

“I should tell Magnus and Da about this,” he said, and made to rise.

“Wait,” Kari said, grabbing his hand and pulling him back down. Erik glanced at their twined fingers for a moment, feeling that tingle again. “Look.”

He tore his gaze away and glanced at the black disk. Thin tendrils had started to sprout from it, arcing out to the sides and up into the sky. As they did, a dim blackness slowly began to spread across the paving stones beneath the disk.

Erik’s heart had been thumping hard already, and now it raced. A fear deeper than he’d ever known began to clutch at his innards. “It’s the Shadow,” he breathed. The dark tendrils grew thicker, stronger, faster, as the pool of shadow spilled from beneath it.

“We have to get out of here,” he said, scrambling to his feet. Kari didn’t argue; they bounced down to the lower roof, and then leapt right down into the front yard. Missus Fray came tearing out of the house, scolding them for being on the roof and demanding to know what that frightful noise had been.

Erik ignored her and darted out into the lane. From here he could see straight down to the edge of the city, where the black disk had grown larger than a man. The shadow spread like an inky stain down the street toward them.

“It’s the Shadow!” he shouted. “Run!


01 March, 2013

Thirty days

Here at Casa Clayborne we're counting down the days until Game of Thrones season 3 starts. From what I can glean from the latest trailer, I'm guessing that the Red Wedding is actually going to happen this time around. They've more or less split book 3 up among two seasons, and the Red Wedding is close enough to the midpoint that it wouldn't make much sense to put it anywhere but at the end of this season...

...if I was sure they would be so traditional. They might change it up and put the RW right in episode 1 of season 4, or something, just to mess with us all.