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.


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