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.”


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