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!


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