23 April, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part IX

If you missed it, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


Aiar lurched to his feet. “Already? No, you must be mistaken.” But he paused, giving Erik hope. “What do you see?”

“This sort of… sparkling light. Violet, like the magic you do. But then there’s this green thing, too. They both get bright and dim, opposite each other.”

“By the lights… You really do have two magics.”

“You didn’t think so?”

“I was unsure. This is all very unsettled territory, Erik. You must realize how unusual it is. For a human to have the methar alone is something worthy of note, but to also have whatever it is that the Brandrinn do… It is astonishing.”

Erik grinned. This was the nicest that Aiar had ever been. “Careful, or I might get the idea you don’t hate me any more.”

Aiar glowered at him. “Have no fear of that, young idiot. I must examine you.” He came over and, without asking, put his hand on Erik’s head again, as he had done that night back at Erik’s home—Don’t think of Bjarheim, don’t. The fae hummed, squinting at Erik, and then his eyes popped open. “Yes, it is there. Before, I said it would take you a year. Two days is most certainly a new record.” He paused for a long while; Erik was beginning to feel sleepy again, as it was still full dark. One or two other folk had stirred when he’d shouted, but once they noticed him talking quietly with Aiar, they’d fallen back asleep.

Kari didn’t, though. While Aiar stared, she came up next to Erik, rubbing her eyes. Her free hand slipped into his. “What’s going on?”

“Your ipfillistin can sense the methar,” Aiar said abruptly. “I am trying to decide how best to guide his learning without him killing himself or the rest of us, or burning down the forest.”

“Is there much chance of that?” Erik asked, nervous. This was really happening; and while Aiar might be given to exaggeration, if he said there was a chance Erik might kill them all, he meant it.

“If we are careful, the risk is low. But a proper fae would learn magic from a master in isolation, spending his first decade having only rare contact with anyone besides his master.”

“What d’you mean, ‘isolation’?” Kari said. “You’re all cooped up in those caves, aren’t you?”

“There are much deeper chambers. It is those we use. Deep enough to—” He cut himself off, narrowing his eyes. “You had best not learn of that.” Erik began to speak, to ask anyway, but Aiar chopped the air with his hand. “No! You are not there, so there is no need to know. Do not ask again.”

Erik grumbled but went along. How was he supposed to learn anything if Aiar wouldn’t teach him? It wasn’t as if he was going to run off to find whatever deep caves he was talking about. “Fine. So now that I can sense it, what do I do with it?”

“Noth—well. I was going to say, do nothing, but, hm. It might take a fae student a year or two to even begin to sense the methar, and then he would spend the next several years examining it, becoming familiar.”

“But I sensed it in two days,” Erik said. “If that was fast, why not the next step?”

“So eager to blow yourself up, hm?” Aiar arched an eyebrow. “Very well. I suppose I must get a head start, if the Brandrinn are to try to teach you as well.” He glanced around, wary. “Perhaps you could not mention the green light you saw.”

“Too late,” whispered a voice above their heads, and Erik jumped back. Ollemar was hanging upside-down from a branch not five feet above them.

Aiar glared at Erik. “I thought you could sense him.”

“I can… when I’m not distracted.”

Ollemar flipped down, making almost no noise as he landed. “If you can see the Seed within you, you are ready to learn. Fae may be able to waste decades hiding underground, but we Brandrinn have pressing concerns. One learns to fly by being thrust from the nest, not by hopping around safely on the ground.”

“Hopeless,” Aiar grunted. “I will teach the boy first, since he agreed to be taught by me first. Let us see what your Vângr brings, and then you may teach him.”

“There is no time to waste. I will teach him today as we walk.”

“You said we would reach the Vângr today! Surely even you cannot be that impatient.”

“Hey!” Erik interrupted. “Excuse me, but I’ll be deciding who I learn from first.”

Aiar sighed. “Of course you will. Well?”

Erik looked back and forth between his two prospective teachers. Aiar had offered first, but the Brandrinn had this prophecy… “Couldn’t I take turns? One day with Aiar, and one day with Ollemar?”

“That would be far too slow,” Aiar scoffed. “You must focus on one or the other if you are to learn anything.”

“For once I agree with the fae,” Ollemar said. “Perhaps someday you might learn… his magic, and master both, but there is no time to be poor at two things, rather than skilled at one.”

“Fine. Then I’ll flip a coin for it. Heads, Aiar. Tails, Ollemar.”

“Fair enough.” Ollemar nodded. “Proceed.”

Aiar sighed again, even more dramatically than before. “This is suitably idiotic, I suppose.” He waved a hand. “Get on with it.”

Erik dug into his pockets and found a penny. He hadn’t had any money with him when he’d fled his house, so he’d thought, but this one penny had been tucked away in a fold in his trousers.

He balanced it on his thumb and flipped it toward the branches. It was still quite dark, only the remnants of their campfire giving any illumination. The coin arced and fell, and Erik had to crunch through the dead pine needles to get close enough to see how it had landed.

It was lodged, edge-first, in the crook of a twig.

Aiar burst out laughing, while Ollemar stared uneasily. “Do not think to manipulate things with your foul magic,” the Brandrinn warned Aiar.

“I did no such thing, imbecile. Do you not see the humor? Ah, nevermind. Flip again, Erik.”

He took the coin and gave it another toss. It struck the dirt and came to rest leaning upright against a pebble.

“Oh now come on!” Erik said. “Which one of you is doing that?”

“I promise you I am making no attempt to influence things,” Aiar said, holding up his hands. “And you would see if I did. Once you can see the methar, you can see all magic woven with it.”

Erik looked at Ollemar. The Brandrinn gritted his teeth. “Cheating at games is a very great sin among the Brandrinn,” he said darkly. “And, too, you would have seen if I had used any magic on the coin.”

“One more time?” Kari said. She reached down and picked up the coin again.

“You should flip it,” Erik said.

She laughed and pressed it into his palm. “I’ll not be responsible for your choices, Erik Rain.” She kissed him on the cheek. Somehow, this time, it made him feel horribly embarrassed.

He sighed and flipped the coin once more. This time it landed with a splash, and when he knelt he saw that there was a tiny, muddy puddle in a depression between two fist-sized rocks. He couldn’t see which way the coin had settled on the bottom.

“Here,” Aiar said, reaching out his fingers and twisting a little. A ball of bright violet light erupted from them, and floated gently down toward the puddle. Erik knelt down, and put his face right beside it.

The coin was stuck, edge-up, in the mud at the bottom of the puddle.

Kari whistled. “It just won’t decide.”

“Or maybe he doesn’t,” Aiar said, looking curiously at Erik. “But if he was using magic to influence it—if he was even capable of that at this point—the Brandrinn or I would see it. I saw no such thing.” He glanced at Ollemar. “You?”

The Brandrinn shook his head. “This is unnatural.”

Erik fished the coin out of the puddle and wiped it on his trouser leg. “Well either this coin is cursed, or we all are. I guess I have to decide myself.” He truly couldn’t, though. Why was this so hard? Just pick one!

“We have wasted much time,” Ollemar grunted. “Sleep more, and decide in the morning.” He trod away silently, and climbed up a tree into the darkness.

Kari patted Erik on the arm and went back toward their hollow. Aiar turned to go as well, but Erik grabbed his sleeve. “Wait. Before, you called me… ipf… iffil… What was it?”

Ipfillistin,” Aiar said. “It translates directly as ‘blood of the heart.’”

“So… I’m Kari’s… heartsblood?” Erik scratched at his chin. “What does that mean?”

“Colloquially, it means ‘that which one cannot live without.’” His eyes twinkled violet in the darkness, and then he was gone.

Erik nestled into the hollow again and put his arm around Kari. She twitched a little at his touch, then settled. That which I can’t live without. I thought we were just kids. All the playing at romance, the stolen kisses, that was just stuff kids did. It didn’t mean anything. They were best friends; that wasn’t the same as being… together.

But she’d already shown him how important he was to her, with her demands that he never leave her, the way her brother had. By Odin, why didn’t she ever tell me about that? Well, the way her father had reacted, clearly it was some horrible family secret. Erik couldn’t possibly ask Sannfred about it, and Kari, well, he didn’t want to distress her again. The twins were definitely too young to remember. That left Gaelle. Kari’s mother was a chatterbox in good times, but this wasn’t that. He’d seen a backbone of iron in that woman since they’d left Bjarheim.

Later, he thought. I can ask later. For now, he snuggled in close to Kari, and felt the rhythm of her breathing, and let slumber creep upon him once more.

Erik half expected the Vângr to take place at some random clearing in the woods, and so he was wholly unprepared to find a colossal, solid wall of trees blocking their path. They were huge pines, grown so close together that barely a sliver of light could squeeze between them.

“Now that ain’t natural,” Sannfred Fray said, coming up behind Erik.

“Nothing could be more natural,” Ollemar said, appearing out of nowhere and making Sannfred jump. “If one can speak with the trees, one can make them see the wisdom of growing in unusual ways.”

Erik’s eyes were only for the trees themselves. There was a faint green glow from them, a web of pulsing light passing from trunk to trunk, branch to branch, cone to cone. “What is that?”

Ollemar came up beside him. “A ward. Shadow cannot enter this place. Come. You may all enter, except the fae.”

“I will be quite content out here, I assure you,” Aiar said. He had been miffed all day, since Erik still hadn’t decided who should teach him first. Both Aiar and Ollemar had complained about wasted time, but they couldn’t understand how hard this was! No one had ever turned their lives upside down with secrets and prophecies and revelations.

Ollemar smirked and strode toward the wall of trees. It curved away out of sight in both directions; if those trees were laid out in a circle, they would enclose a sizable area.

Erik looked back at their group. Ollemar, despite his general hostility, had gladly shared his food with the rest of the Bjarheim folk, and showed them the best places to gather water. He did not seem to mind the idea of their entering the Vângr. None of them seemed to want to wait outside, so Erik took a deep breath and followed Ollemar.

The Brandrinn ducked between two enormous roots that looked far too tightly woven to pass through; but there was just enough space, for the roots had been grown in such a cunning way that even Sannfred, the largest of their party, was able to squeeze through with nary a scratch. There was a path under here, unlit but for the scattered sunlight from above.

And then it was dark. Erik put his hands out and followed along. He realized after several steps that there was a faint green light illuminating the walls. He could even see where Ollemar’s footsteps had landed, although the ranger had disappeared ahead.

“Erik, wait,” Kari called out. “We can’t see anything.”

“Huh? But there’s—oh.” The green light was the same glow he’d seen outside, Brandrinn magic. Of course the others couldn’t see it. “I’ll guide you. We’ll make a chain.” He went back and took Kari’s hand. “Stay there a second.” He went back, bringing each person forward to grasp the next one’s hand, until there was a chain ten people long. Ilvha, having one hand occupied by her babe, came last.

Erik returned to the front of the chain, took Kari’s hand again, and went forward. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and he could see quite well, though everything was tinged green. The tunnel curved, and a few times someone or other bumped their heads against the low dirt ceiling or bits of root that protruded from it. Before long there was a spot of light ahead. Kari yelped with delight when she saw it, and Erik could hear the whole chain of Bjarheimers growing eager to escape the darkness.

Finally there was enough light for the others to see, and one by one they scrambled up and out of the hole, into daylight again. Erik looked back. The wall of trees was a hundred yards back; the tunnel had brought them to what seemed to be near the middle of the Vângr.

Ollemar awaited them, and, Erik realized, so did several other Brandrinn. They all wore the same greens and browns, and Erik had assumed they’d all be as nondescript as Ollemar. But aside from their clothing, the eight—no, ten other Brandrinn were as different as could be: tall and pale, short and dark, old and bald, young and apple-cheeked. Erik turned about, examining them one by one. The Frays huddled together, glancing nervously about, except Kari, who stayed holding Erik’s hand. It was a bright spot of warmth amidst all the cold glares of the Brandrinn.

Even Ollemar looked nervous. He cleared his throat. “Brothers,” he said, for the Brandrinn did all appear to be male. “The prophecy of Endras has come to pass. This boy is born of two magics. He has the Seed. And… another magic, whose name I will not use among these boughs.”

The other Brandrinn muttered, staring at Erik with cautious eyes. Erik tried to speak low to Ollemar, but his voice carried anyway. “What do you mean, ‘born of two magics?’ My mother was part—um, the thing you don’t want to say. But my Da…” He trailed off, sudden horror dawning on him.

Before he could say more, the largest of the Brandrinn spoke up, a man with fiery red hair and a beard that touched the middle of his chest. “You say he can use our magic, and—the other. Show us, boy.”

Erik gulped. He focused on the green light in his mind’s eye first. Better to start with the magic they’ll like. He couldn’t do much, but he had figured this out, in an idle moment when they’d stopped to eat lunch. He knelt down to the ground, finding a spot of bare dirt among the grass. Erik let the green light in his mind seep into the soil. He could feel it flowing between the tiny clods of dirt. And—there! He found what he was looking for.

The seed sprouted instantly, drawing its life from the emerald light. A pale green shoot sprung up from the dirt, uncoiling into a small, fuzzy stalk about the size of Erik’s finger.

The red-haired Brandrinn nodded. He too looked nervous. “Very well. What of… the other?”

“He should not use that magic here,” another Brandrinn said, the short, dark-skinned one. He was twirling his staff around slowly, as if preparing to fight. Erik gulped.

“It is necessary,” Ollemar said. “He must show that he is the one Endras foretold.”

All the other Brandrinn grumbled, and the dark-skinned one pursed his lips, glowering at Erik. Erik gulped again and sought the methar, the violet light in his mind. He hadn’t actually learned how to do anything with it yet. Aiar would be furious if he saw this. Good thing he stayed outside.

And yet, when Erik tried, it came naturally. The methar flowed forth just as the Seed had, looping and spinning in the air, as if it had a mind of its own, eager to make something of itself. Erik held out his hand, and settled the methar into it. He wondered if he could make it glow, to emit light that the Brandrinn could see—

Everyone yelped when the methar suddenly flashed brightly, casting long shadows all around and dazzling Erik. He futilely tried to block the glare with his hand, and the methar dissipated, nestling itself back inside his head again.

Once everyone’s vision cleared, the Brandrinn stared at Erik with something between awe and dismay. “It is as I said,” Ollemar intoned. “He is foretold. He will bind us, and destroy us.” Ollemar knelt down before Erik. “Odinson,” the Brandrinn said.

“Odinson,” the others all said, kneeling where they stood.

“Uh,” Erik said, completely lost. “Can someone explain what that means?”

“I can,” said a deep voice, and Erik turned around to look directly into the eyes of his father.


17 April, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part VIII

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


Aiar rolled his eyes. “Oh, a prophecy! How quaint. And what precisely is it supposed to mean?”

The Brandrinn jerked his head up. “Do not presume to question our prophecies, scum.”

“I question all forms of nonsense. Prophecies especially. This—”

“What prophecy?” Erik interrupted. Aiar might not think much of the Brandrinn, but Erik had finally met one, and he wasn’t about to allow Aiar to run roughshod over him.

“Yes, do tell,” the fae said anyway.

The woodsman picked up his staff and slowly rose to his feet. “I will tell the boy in detail. Not you.” He gestured away from the group, meaning for Erik to follow.

“Now hang on there,” Sannfred Fray said, coming up. “I ain’t about to let you take Erik off into the woods all on his own.”

In a flash, the Brandrinn’s staff came to rest against Sannfred’s throat. He froze, eyes wide.

“You could not stop me,” the Brandrinn said. “Trespassers, the lot of you. I ought to crush your windpipe and make a lesson of you.”

“No!” Erik said, leaping up and batting the staff away.

The Brandrinn made no move to replace it. “I will not harm the boy. I swear upon my bark and branches. Come.” He strode off, his footfalls making no sound.

Erik started to follow, but a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. He turned and met Sannfred’s eyes. “I’ll be all right, I swear.”

“Don’t go far. Your… your Da won’t forgive me if I lose you.”

Erik nodded, pushing back sudden tears at the mention of his father… but there was a Brandrinn here, and he knew something. Erik followed the woodsman away through the trees.

The Brandrinn had already gone a hundred yards. Somehow Erik could pick him out easily among the trunks, even though his woodsy clothes and his very skin seemed to blend in among them. “How can I see you so well?” he called out as he drew close.

“The prophecy,” the woodsman said, meeting Erik’s eyes and thoroughly ignoring his question, “has been passed down for generations. What do you know of the Brandrinn?”

“Just, you know… rumors, the kind kids spread. You protect the forest, I guess?”

“More than that, but yes. And we work alone. The prophecy says that you will bring us together to save us, and then destroy us.”

“I don’t want to destroy you! And how d’you know I’m the… the one it means?”

“A child of two magics,” the woodsman said, crouching down against a tree. He dug in the soil with the tip of his staff, drawing a ragged star shape on the one hand, and a leaf on the other. “No one learns two magics. But you are learning fae magic, and you could see right through my cloak.”

“You haven’t got a cloak,” Erik pointed out.

“A cloak of shade, of leaves and pollen and dust. It is our magic. It conceals us from all but one another. But you can already pierce it, because you have the Seed within you.”

“The seed of what?”

“The Seed of true-seeing. Brandrinn cannot hide from one another, because we—you—are as one.”

“I suppose next you’ll tell me I’m Odinson walking the earth.”

The woodsman was stone-faced. “That is the second part of the prophecy.”

Erik laughed. When the Brandrinn did not join in, the laughter died in Erik’s throat. “Are you serious?”

“You have our magic, but not our history. Come. I already feel a pull toward the Vângr.” He gazed off into the woods.

“‘Vângr’? You damn well better explain that! I’m damn tired of gettin’ pompous mumbo-jumbo thrown at me left and right. I get enough of that from Aiar! And I ain’t leaving my friends here. And what in the hells is your name, anyway?”

The Brandrinn was quiet for a stretch, as if struggling to decide whether he owed Erik his name. “Ollemar of Three Dawns.” He bowed at the waist. “And you are Erik.”

“How did you—oh, right, Sannfred said my name. Erik Rain.” He held out a hand to shake.

Ollemar stared at the hand for a moment, then gently pushed it away with the tip of his staff. “Your friends are of no use. The Shadow has come, and we must make for the Vângr—it is a gathering of the Brandrinn, in times of dire need. We must leave at once. The others know what I know. They will be waiting.”

“I’m not going bloody anywhere without the others. Especially Aiar. And Kari,” he added, embarrassed that she had been an afterthought to the fae.

Ollemar’s face scrunched up. It was a hard face to describe; plain, almost bland in its featurelessness. Sure, there was a nose, two eyes, all the usual parts, but he was so unremarkable that he might as well have been a crude drawing in a children’s book. His hair was a nondescript brown, the exact same shade as the bark beside him. Even as ordinary as he was, he still looked quite unsettled when he frowned like this. “A fae at the Vângr would be a grave insult to the forest. They are seekers of the arcane, not of nature’s order. I will not have it.”

Erik crossed his arms. “Then I’m not going. And to the hells with your prophecy.” He made himself turn around and walk away.

He couldn’t believe it; he’d come all the way out here to find a Brandrinn, and here he was, telling the first one he met to go stuff himself. But how could he leave Kari and the Frays, and Ludwin and Cesja and… and even Thora behind? They were all he had left of Bjarheim. He couldn’t sever that connection.

He didn’t hear footfalls behind him, but somehow he sensed that Ollemar was there. Erik glanced back. The Brandrinn was following him, no more than five feet away. He looked pained. “Perhaps the prophecy is flexible on whether you may bring… companions… to the Vângr. But that stinking fae may not enter. He can wait beyond the trees.”

“Why do you hate the fae so much?”

“They do not glorify nature, that which sustains us. Instead they squander their magic looking inward, hiding in their caves. It is despicable.”

“Well, try to be nice. Aiar’s been protecting us. And teachin’ me magic. So lay off.”

“As you wish,” Ollemar grumbled.

They returned to the rest of the group, who were relieved that Erik had come back unharmed. “This is Ollemar. He’ll guide us to… a place in the forest, where… something will happen.” He shrugged. “We’ll be safe.”

“What if whoever attacked us comes back?” Kari said. She kept a clear, wary eye on the Brandrinn.

“What sort of attack?” Ollemar said, suddenly interested. Erik and the others described the decaying grass in the meadow, and how it had trapped and killed poor Florr.

Ollemar grew visibly agitated as the story wore on, and when it was finished, he bellowed with rage and whipped his staff down onto the dirt. “Dark magic, used to murder green life! If I meet whoever has done that, I will tear them to pieces! Their blood will feed new growth!”

Aiar cleared this throat. “If you are done with your homicidal tantrum, may we proceed? The Vângr will not wait.”

Ollemar glared at the fae. “How do you know of the Vângr?”

“We fae scum know much, not that you had bothered to ask.”

Ollemar looked at Erik instead. “Certain folk should not sully the Vângr by letting their tongues touch its name. Come.” He stalked away.

Erik quickly tried to explain that they had to follow Ollemar. “It’ll be safe, I swear. If the Brandrinn come together, they can stop the Shadow, and save Bjarheim,” he pleaded, hoping to soothe the visible doubts on his companions’ faces.

Aiar nodded. “He is right. A Vângr does not happen often. We can only hope the other Brandrinn are not quite so irretrievably rude.”

“Boy, this is madness you’re gettin’ wrapped up in,” Sannfred Fray said.

Gaelle Fray swatted him on the shoulder. “Hush. He’s got to make this decision for himself. You were the one what always said what luck it was for a man to be able to use magic! How can you try to stop him at a time like this?”

“He has already begun learning from me,” Aiar said, looming over the Frays. “Even if that leaf-blooded Brandrinn is capable of teaching him magic, it will be mere forest tricks, not proper arcana.” He set his gaze on Erik. “Be wary. The Brandrinn have no care but for themselves and their trees. If they help Bjarheim, it will be to serve their own ends.”

Erik glanced around the group. They all stared at him, some with awe, some with worry. Ludwin and his wife Cesja watched him with wide eyes. Thora seemed to appraise him, as if he might have some value after all. The young mother, Ilvha, had already stood up, clutching her baby to her chest as if ready to follow Erik wherever he might go. Thurgald, the man who Ollemar had shot, was sitting up, woozily rubbing his neck and looking disgruntled.

The Fray twins looked bored as they always did, Jarno tying Kjesten’s hair into knots while she pelted him with clods of dirt, utterly ignoring the drama around them. Sannfred wrung his hands; perhaps he really did feel responsible for Erik. Gaelle watched him evenly.

And Kari. She stood at arm’s length, hands on her hips, looking impatient. Erik sensed something and glanced over his shoulder; Ollemar stood just at the edge of sight, probably annoyed at being made to wait, but Erik could not rush this. He turned back to Kari, and walked over to her. She flinched a little. Erik swallowed, trying to moisten his dry throat, and took her hands. “What do you think I should do?”

“I—” Kari glanced around at the others, but Erik took her chin and made her look at him.

“No. Tell me.”

She closed her eyes, spilling tears down her cheeks. Erik still didn’t understand how Kari—tough, rough, tree-climbing, no-nonsense Kari—had become so distraught. You weren’t supposed to leave, she’d said.

“Tell me,” he whispered, drawing closer. The others were all staring, but to the hells with them.

“I—I had a… Mikal was—”

“Kari, no!” Sannfred shouted suddenly. “We do not speak of that!”

“Let her talk, you fool,” Aiar said. “Can you not see how important this is to her, whatever it is?” Sannfred glared daggers at the fae, then huffed and crossed his arms. Aiar gestured impatiently at Kari. “Continue, girl.”

“When I was… very little, I had an older brother. Mikal. He was… my best friend. And… there was an accident. He fell…” The tears came again, but Kari’s expression was one of anger, not sorrow. “He told me he’d never leave, but he did.” She clutched Erik’s hand tightly in hers. “You have to promise you’ll never leave.”

“I swear,” Erik said. “But I can’t see the future.”

Kari was squeezing his hands so hard it hurt. Suddenly she released him, and nodded once. “Then let’s go.” She strode away toward Ollemar.

The others began to follow. Sannfred, before he went, came over to Erik. “You had best not hurt my girl.” Then he followed the rest of them.

Erik found himself bringing up the rear, and realized that Aiar walked slowly beside him. “You humans are insane,” the fae said.

Erik nodded. “I agree completely.”

“The first thing is to take a leaf and hold it against your forehead,” Ollemar said, plucking a veined, dark-green specimen from a nearby shrub to demonstrate. “Keep it there until you can feel it. Not feel it with your skin, but with your soul.” He handed the leaf to Erik.

Aiar sighed dramatically from several yards away as Erik did as Ollemar instructed. “Like this?”

The Brandrinn nodded. “The leaf is a surrogate for the life of the forest. It is a small part, as you or I are a small part. But the forest is made of nothing but small parts, all joined together in a great linked circle. Understanding begins by learning to see oneself as part of that circle.”

“Magic exists independent of lifeforms,” Aiar declared, apparently having become fed up with Ollemar’s teaching methods. He stalked over to Erik. “We are in its flow, and we sense it. Yes, life is all well and good. Being alive myself, I can hardly criticize it. But magic is not linked to life any more than a bird is linked to the wind.”

“The wind guides the bird just as life guides magic,” Ollemar countered, coming to his feet and staring up at the fae. Ollemar was not tall, but you couldn’t tell it by the fierceness of his gaze.

Erik stepped between them. “I said I’d learn from both of you, and I will. One at a time. Please?”

The fae threw his hands up and strode off into the trees, muttering. “Never find the methar at this rate…”

Ollemar stared smugly after him. Erik shoved a finger into the Brandrinn’s face. “And you, cut that out. I just want to save Bjarheim. All this magic mumbo-jumbo means nothing to me, d’you hear?”

“It means a great deal to the world, whether or not you like it. Now come. Sense the life around you.”

Much as Erik hadn’t been able to sense the methar, he could not feel the ebb and flow of life as Ollemar insisted he would. He still sensed power radiating from Ollemar’s staff; and when the Frays made a campfire again, he could see the little orange spark of energy, floating there, waiting to be tapped by the whirling sticks. But it was all vague and incomprehensible. After an hour of trying, he finally gave up and insisted on being let alone.

Ollemar seemed just as put out as Aiar had been, and disappeared into the woods for a while. He returned with a deer slung over his shoulders. Gingerly he set it upon the ground and knelt before it, putting his hands on it and performing some sort of silent prayer ritual. Finally he drew a knife from the folds of his tunic and began rapidly dissecting the carcass. In minutes, a haunch had been spitted over the fire, and Ollemar himself stood there, turning it.

“Doesn’t it bother you to kill a deer?” Erik asked. “You got so upset about all that other stuff.”

“Killing an animal for food is not the same as mindlessly eradicating life. And the ritual I performed sanctified the deer. It is part of the cycle of life now, feeding me as it might feed a wolf or a warg or a bear.” He gazed out into the darkness. “Whoever was following you is still following you, but they are not near enough to be a concern. They have just now crossed the spot where I found you this morning, and they are on our trail. Your companions are leaving signs as they walk that a blind man could see. There is no hope of eluding them. With my presence, they will think twice about attacking again.”

“Aiar put up wards around our camp, the night after they attacked us. Can you do that too?”

Ollemar grimaced at the fae’s name. “I have no need. The forest itself warns me.”

“You can fight them all yourself?”

The Brandrinn was silent for a while, watching the deer haunch turn over the fire. “The magic you described was very powerful. I would gladly give my life to stop them, but then you would be unprotected. Go now, and rest. There will be food soon, and then you must sleep. Tomorrow we will reach the Vângr.”

Erik did as the Brandrinn told him. He found a mossy spot in a hollow, and was surprised when Kari crawled in to join him. She said nothing, but nestled her head against his shoulder. He wondered what Sannfred would think if he saw them like that. A week ago we were just kids, Erik thought. You wish that were still true, don’t you?

Erik dreamed of flying that night, soaring high over the fields beyond Bjarheim, then gliding down toward his home. The city was unsullied, its towers touching the sky, the slate roofs of its houses glowing in the sunset. But the longer he flew, the harder it became, until it took all his willpower just to stay aloft. He looked back and the Shadow had come out of nowhere; it was gaining on him. It touched his foot, an unexpectedly chill grip, and the land all around him turned to snow and ice. The north, said a voice, sounding as if it came from the glistening white that blanketed the landscape. Go.

He jerked awake. He was vaguely aware of Kari by his side, but his attention was on something floating before him in the darkness. It was a sparkle of violet light, pulsating in counterpoint with an orb of faint green energy. He tried to reach for it, but it wasn’t there; he realized, elated, that he was seeing these things inside his own mind.

“Aiar!” he shouted, heedless of the pervading quiet of the forest. Kari started, sitting up, as Erik pulled his numb arm out from under her and scrambled to his feet. “Aiar, where are you?”

The fae was sitting on a stump, waving his hands through the air, trailing some sort of frail webbing of violet light between them. He shook it away and glanced at Erik. “What?”

“I think… I think I can see the methar.”


09 April, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part VII

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


When the sun rose high, they broke for lunch and finished off the hares. Sannfred led them to one of the caches he’d mentioned: a barrel coated in pitch, nailed shut, and sunk waist-deep in the ground. Concealed as it was amidst shrubs and rocks, Erik realized he would’ve strolled right past it if Sannfred hadn’t pointed it out.

It was crammed full of salt beef, nuts, and dried fruit. Everyone wanted to gorge themselves, but Sannfred—and, surprisingly, Aiar—sternly told them all that they were on rationing until they reached the forest. “You will die here if you waste your resources,” Aiar said.

“You’re bigger than us all,” Thora retorted. “You just want more for yourself!”

Aiar glowered, picked up a single black walnut, and popped it into his mouth. “That is the sum total of my sustenance for today, nitwit. Fae have other resources.”

In the end it was Thora who ended up trying to hoard more than she should. Erik noticed that she’d stuffed a pouch of salt beef under her shirt; when he pointed it out to Sannfred, Thora glared daggers at him. Erik wanted to keep an eye on her, but the looks she gave him were so vicious that he was afraid to stay close.

The Frays weren’t about to abandon a fellow Bjarnheimer out in the wilderness, but they made her walk in the front of the group so they could watch her. Of course she started dragging her feet, slowing the whole party. Finally Aiar came back and shouted at her until she got up to a reasonable pace.

By midafternoon, they’d all begun to fall prey to fatigue. Even Aiar drooped in the heat. Erik looked back when they stopped in a meadow, but Bjarheim was lost behind the hills. He fretted about Da again. Da had been out in the city when the Shadow came. He’d have seen it and escaped. Erik gritted his teeth and wiped away incipient tears. He couldn’t start thinking about it, or he’d never be able to keep going.

As they prepared to get moving again, Erik noticed a spot of ground near him that seemed to have gone sickly and dead, as if the grass had simply decided to give up the ghost. In fact the longer he watched it, the faster it withered. It had started out no larger than his fist, hadn’t it? Now it was half a pace across, and growing.

“Hey!” he shouted, backing away from it. An uneasy instinct made him turn around. Another dead spot, perfectly round, expanded toward his feet. The grass turned brown and then black with horrifying speed. “Look out!”

All over the meadow the circles appeared, withering the once-vibrant grass in seconds. One of the two other men who’d gone hunting with Sannfred, a tall bony fellow named Florr, yelped and tried to stomp one of the spots with his foot, as if he could somehow stop its spread. But then he couldn’t pick his foot up off the ground. “Help! It’s got me!”

Sannfred rushed over and grabbed Florr’s arm, but no matter how hard he pulled, Florr’s foot wouldn’t come loose. The deadness began to creep up Florr’s leg. The color drained from it, the threads of his trousers disintegrated and flaked off, and within seconds the man’s flesh had begun to turn black. He screamed.

Sannfred, cursing, let him go and backed away. The dead spots were everywhere; a dozen or more, no, at least twenty—Erik ran between them, aiming for the edge of the meadow, hoping for safety in the trees. He jerked to a halt as blackened deadness sprouted anew before him. He teetered forward, losing his balance—

Something yanked him upright. He twirled around to find himself face to face with Kari. There was terror in her face that Erik was sure mirrored his; but determination, too, and that gave him heart. Hand in hand, they ran another way.

Erik saw Aiar gesture violently. A streak of violet light appeared, spearing one of the expanding dead spots right in its center. The decay halted at once, but did not reverse. Other spots continued to appear and grow. The fae shouted, “There are too many! Run!”

Kari and Erik made it to a copse at the edge of the meadow. There were no dead spots there, to Erik’s immense relief. “It’s safe in the trees!” he shouted back. The others had avoided stepping in any of the decay, except poor Florr, whose screams had already stopped. He was now no more than a pile of rotting flesh amidst a field of black. The circles of decay had joined together, forming one large corroded morass. At last they stopped growing.

“We should go,” Sannfred said, refusing to look back, and herding the rest along through the trees.

Erik stared out over the meadow, and just as he turned, he saw something moving. Shapes, beyond the meadow. Men. Then Sannfred was in his way. When Erik dodged around the bulky Fray patriarch and looked again, he saw nothing.

The way became steeper the farther they went. These hills, which had always looked small compared to the great Skarstands to the east, now seemed to be pushing up against the very sky.

Erik told Aiar about the men he thought he’d seen. He expected dismissiveness from the fae, but Aiar merely nodded and grumbled. “We are followed. I suspected it yesterday. Whoever they are, they are too few to assault us directly. Hence that awful magic that ambushed us.”

“What was it?” Erik said.

Aiar pressed his lips together. “I have not encountered it before. It is magic of darkness, to be sure. My counterattack was barely able to stop it. There were too many.” He glared down at Erik. “You should be practicing sensing the methar.”

“While we’re bein’ attacked? How’m I supposed to do that?”

“A fool ignores the tools he has available,” Aiar snapped, and loped on ahead, leaving Erik feeling very sure that he was the fool in question.

By sundown, they were all exhausted. Aiar announced that he would place wards around their camp, to notify them if anyone approached.

Erik watched intently as Aiar worked, but he could not tell what the fae was doing. “I can… I can see you doing something. It’s like weaving. But it… it don’t make sense to me.”

“Nor will it, until you have mastered sensing the methar. Now sit down and focus!” He shooed Erik away and went back to his magic.

“I told you we should have gone south!” Thora said, tugging her shawl tight around her. “Whoever it was that attacked us—”

“Shut your damn face,” said a voice Erik hadn’t heard before. How’m I supposed to focus, when everyone’s yelling all the damn time? He realized it was the young mother, who had trouped along with them without a word’s complaint. Her baby barely made any sound either, though Erik supposed that might be because it was constantly suckling at her breast. She hadn’t any spare cloths with her, but the baby seemed content to tinkle into the grass now and again.

And he certainly never would’ve guessed her for fierce. She looked like she’d fall over if a kitten said boo. But Thora, startled by the unexpected verbal assault, irritably clamped her mouth shut and strode away from the campfire that Sanfred and Gaelle were working at building.

It wasn’t going well. The wood here was all damp, thanks to a rainstorm earlier that had just missed them. Erik thought about offering to help, but the elder Frays would probably just yell at him. Instead he looked at the piece of wood that Sannfred was furiously rolling between his hands, trying to encourage some heat.

Oddly, the point of contact between the two pieces of wood seemed… somehow interesting. He’d seen fires made like this before, but now he noticed a tiny orange nodule sitting right at the junction, like a firefly. He crept closer, taking care not to raise the Frays’ ire. The little orange spot ebbed and flowed with Sannfred’s exertions. It was going to take him hours to bring up a fire at this rate.

Instinctively, Erik reached out to the orange nub and pulled.

A bright flash dazzled him, and a flare of intense heat on his face made him cry out and fall back. Sannfred shouted and stumbled back. The elder Fray’s entire arm had caught fire.

Maintaining a presence of mind that Erik envied, Sannfred dove to the ground and rolled his arm under himself. The flames went out quickly, as Gaelle stood over her husband, gobsmacked. “Dear! Are you all right?”

“I don’t get it,” Sannfred said a minute later, once he’d calmed. He gingerly rolled up the charred remnants of his sleeve, wincing at every motion. The skin underneath was red and blistered already. Not an awful burn; he’d gotten the fire out quick. But his arm would be tender for days. “Th’ fire just blew up, like somethin’ spooked it.”

Gaelle straightened up and glanced around, startled. “Is it… the ones who attacked us? Are they back?”

“No,” Aiar said. He’d just come back over from the edge of their camp. “The wards were already in place before that happened, and—” He glanced at the fire, and froze. His jaw dropped open, and after a moment he stared in awe at Erik. “How did you do that?” For once, there was no hostility in his voice. Just… amazement.

“I—I don’t know. I saw somethin’, and I pulled it.” What the hell had he done? He still hadn’t even caught a glimpse of the methar. Had he done magic somehow without realizing it?

Aiar’s skepticism returned at once. “Do not do anything like that again, you imbecile! You could have killed him!”

“But I don’t even know what I did!” Erik protested. “I just—”

“It—it shouldn’t be possible. To manipulate—without the methar—” He glared at Erik as if this was all his fault. As if Erik had been the one to decide he was capable of learning fae magic!

The fae sighed and rubbed his nose. “Be cautious. You must learn to sense the methar, before you kill someone.”

Erik couldn’t help but look back over his shoulder as they walked. Whoever was after them wasn’t going to give up. Erik could feel it.

He tried asking Aiar about the fire, and what Erik had done, but Aiar would not speak of it. “Sense the methar. You must do nothing else until you sense the methar.” There was more than the usual disdain in his voice. He was… worried. And that worried Erik.

So he tried to sense the methar, whatever it was. He tried to look inward as he walked, to see what lay within his mind; but inevitably his thoughts drifted, and he would realize with a jerk that he was thinking about Da, or Bjarheim, or Kari, or just watching over his shoulder, trying to decide if the shadow beside that pine was innocent or not…

Only when they stopped could he focus, because only then could he close his eyes. He rummaged around in his mind, trying to find the methar. He saw shapes and colors; odd geometric patterns flared in his vision when he rubbed his eyes. But it was all ordinary. Frustrated, he punched his palm and decided to give it a rest.

He went to find Sannfred. Mister Fray was talking to Kari in low tones, while the twins raced around in circles, ignoring their mother’s admonishments to sit still. Kari nodded and slunk away, as if in contemplation. She’d been more conciliatory since the night Aiar had shown up, but Erik really hadn’t had a chance to talk to her. At least she wasn’t glaring at him any more.

Erik stopped before Sannfred. “So, erm… do we know where we’ll find a woodsman?”

“The fae says there’s one near, off that way.” He gestured halfheartedly to the north. The hills had begun to descend and flatten a little, and there were more and more trees. Not quite forest yet, but almost.

Erik realized that Sannfred was eyeing him. “Sir?”

“Whatever the fae’s doin’ with you… you be careful, boy, you hear? I know your father. He wouldn’t approve o’ this.”

“I have to,” Erik argued. “My… my mama was part fae, Da said. I have to do this.” He paused. “’Sides, no one listens to me. If I can do magic…”

Sannfred grumbled. “You best be careful with that line o’ thinkin’, boy. If’n the only reason you get respect is ’cause folk are scared of you…” He shook his head, unwilling to finish the thought.

He doesn’t know how it feels. Learning magic would mean that grown-ups would finally have to listen. Erik wasn’t going to threaten them with it, if that’s what Sannfred was thinking! He’d only ever use his magic for good reasons, he swore to himself. Wouldn’t that make others respect him just as much?

The trees got thick enough to become a constant nuisance. Erik saw no signs of pursuit, and no more evil pools of decaying grass sprang upon them. They were in true forest now; but where were the woodsmen?

“We’ll be lucky t’ find even one,” Sannfred grumbled when Erik asked, “let alone several together.”

They’d broken for lunch, not anywhere in particular; clearings were few and far between, so they spread out among the trees, leaning up against the trunks for support. Erik took a risk and went to sit by Kari. He didn’t say anything, and she didn’t either, but she did favor him with a smile. A tiny smile, lost within the obvious despair on her face. It nearly broke his heart.

Everyone ate quietly, even Thora, who had taken up her complaining again, if a bit less forcefully. Thurgald, the other man in the group, sat at the edge, staring out into the trees beyond. He said he’d been a carpenter in Bjarheim, but somehow he also knew a lot about hunting and surviving in the wilderness. He wouldn’t say how or why he acquired those skills. Rather than being evasive, he simply stared at Erik until he changed the subject.

Erik was startled when a thin black line sprouted from Thurgald’s neck, and the man toppled silently over. Ilvha, the young mother, sat near him, nursing her babe. She shrieked and tumbled backward, somehow keeping her child clasped to her breast.

Everyone else lurched to their feet, reaching for whatever primitive weapons they had at hand. Mostly they’d amassed a collection of thick branches to use as clubs, although Gaelle Fray had for some reason brought her kitchen knife, and held it out before her in steady hands.

Erik scrambled over to Thurgald, realizing belatedly that whoever had shot Thurgald would probably now have a clear line of sight to Erik. He pushed that thought away and looked at the dart. It was a narrow reed of some kind, with a heavy, bulbous tip and a tapering rear. It hadn’t gone far into Thurgald’s neck, but the tip was coated with some sort of greenish slime.

But Thurgald was still breathing. Whatever it was, it hadn’t killed him. Erik looked down at the carpenter’s hand. In it he gripped a hunting knife, the most substantial weapon their entire group carried. Except Aiar’s magic, right?

Something tickled Erik’s neck. For a terrifying moment, he thought another dart had found him, but it wasn’t that sort of sensation. He could feel something—up there. He looked up into the branches overhead; clouds of pine needles obscured all but fragments of the blue sky above. Then, inexplicably, one of those clouds resolved into the shape of a man, perched perfectly still atop a branch.

“You up there!” Erik shouted. The man, whoever it was, jerked in surprise. There was something else Erik could see, some sort of—

The man put something to his mouth, some sort of hollow tube. Suddenly Aiar was standing before Erik. The fae’s hands stretched upward. Something flew through the air, clattered, and fell softly onto the earth. Another dart, just like the one that had felled Thurgald.

But it had stopped harmlessly in midair, right before Aiar’s neck. “Come down, you dolt,” the fae shouted up at the man. “We’re not your enemies!”

The man in the branches hesitated, considering, and then leapt down from branch to branch as lightly as a feather. He somersaulted into a crouch on the forest floor.

“Yes, very impressive,” Aiar said. “You are Brandrinn, and we are in need of your assistance.”

“Must be pretty awful,” the man drawled, “if they’re sendin’ filthy fae out to look for help.” He’d put away his dart-shooter, whatever it was, and instead drew a thick quarterstaff from his back. It was inscribed end-to-end with runes of some sort. Erik could, without being able to explain how, feel power radiating from it.

Aiar snarled, the first time Erik had ever heard him make such a noise. “The Shadow has come to Bjarheim,” he said. “We need your help to defeat it.”

The Brandrinn ignored him. “You, boy.” He levelled the staff at Erik. “How did you see me up there?”

“I—I just looked, and there you were.”

The Brandrinn frowned. “Have you trained with my brethren, then? No other could detect me so easily.”

“I’ve never even seen a woodsman before,” Erik said, his heart racing. Did this man mean them harm? Why had he shot Thurgald? “I’m learning fae magic from him.”

The woodsman’s jaw dropped open. The staff slipped from his fingers, and he fell to his knees. “By all the gods… it cannot be now…”

“What are you blathering about?” Aiar demanded.

The Brandrinn’s eyes drifted between Erik and the fae. His mouth worked for a moment. “He… he is our destruction, and our salvation.”


03 April, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part VI

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


By sunset, the corruption of Bjarheim had completed. Erik sat watching on the edge of an uncomfortable rock, his knees drawn up before him. The black shadow enveloping Bjarheim writhed in the distance, like something alive and malevolent.

He’d wanted to get away from it, but he kept feeling himself drawn back. Sannfred Fray and two other men had disappeared off into the hills in the late morning, returning hours later with a brace of hares. “We’ll need food t’ keep our strength up,” he’d declared. “There’s caches of packed dry goods off in th’ hills here an’ there, but we’d be fools t’ rely on ’em.”

Erik had wanted to go with them, but Sannfred had told him in no uncertain terms that he was too young and must stay behind with the others. “I’m fourteen now, I’m a man!” Erik had insisted, to no avail. This was no lark, they’d said; this was serious.

When he did manage to draw his eyes away from the city, he kept himself busy playing with the twins, or scouting around the edges of the ridge. Missus Fray scolded him when she caught him at it, though, claiming he’d get lost and eaten by wolves. “I escaped the Shadow,” he argued. “Wolves’re nothin’ compared to that.” It did him no good; she grabbed his arm and dragged him back to the rest of the group.

A few more folk had straggled in by noon, but there the flow stopped. Aside from the Frays, there were seven others: the two men who had gone off hunting with Sannfred; a young, terrified woman, carrying her mewling baby; an older woman with a shawl who glared at the others as if the Shadow were their doing; and a young couple who had, they blushingly revealed, been enjoying a late-night romp in the fields when the Shadow had come.

In the afternoon, they sat around a rudimentary campfire, gnawing on blackened hare. “The woodsmen are our only hope,” Sannfred told them. “It’s clear that… that no help’ll come from the city. If the ironspeakers or th’ priests had any warnin’, they weren’t able t’ stop it in time. And who knows what even happened to th’ fae! We’ll have t’ go find the woodsmen ourselves.”

“Pish,” the shawl-wearing woman—named Thora—said. She hadn’t touched her hare. “Those leaf-eaters are hardly better than animals, hiding in the forest.”

“None of that,” Sannfred growled, but the woman was unfazed.

“Do you have another idea?” Erik asked.

“We should go south, to Belj. My sister lives there.”

“But th’ woodsmen are north, in th’ forest.”

“And that’s why I’m going south, to where I know it’s safe.” She glanced around the circle, a challenge in her eyes. “Anyone who has any sense will come with me.”

“You’re mad to head there yourself!” Erik said. “It’s a hundred miles if it were an inch, an’ you’ve got no horse, an’ no supplies.”

“Hmf.” Thora stood up, glaring at him. “We will survive. The land will provide. Your feet may be too weak to make the journey, but I assure you that mine are not.”

“Enough,” Gaelle Fray said, standing up and meeting Thora’s eyes. “We’re all tired and in need of rest. No one’s going anywhere before tomorrow. Now let’s wait and see if anyone else comes, and in the morning we’ll start out, whichever way we end up going.”

There was no arguing with her firm tone. Thora harrumphed again and strode away, to sit by herself on the grass. She eyed Erik as she went. He had no idea who she was, but he was getting sick of people glaring at him.

Erik watched as the sun’s last glimmer dropped below the horizon. Bjarheim was a shadow on the land now. He felt cold tendrils encircling his heart. How were they ever going to free Bjarheim? Would the woodsmen be able to help? Finding one could be difficult, if he didn’t want to be found; they were said to blend into the very trees themselves. And everyone always said that woodsmen lived and worked alone; would a single Brandrinn be able to do anything against the vast Shadow?

Erik glanced around the ridge. Most of the others had found shade and managed to doze. The young, nervous couple were still awake, sitting a little apart, glancing about glumly. Erik looked at them, then noticed Kari sitting on the grass not far beyond them, staring out toward Bjarheim.

She could hardly flee from him now; but if she really wanted nothing to do with him, then what good would it do to approach her? No. I ain’t gonna lose her with no explanation!

He put Bjarheim at his back and walked over to her. She saw him coming, and her eyes narrowed a bit, but she did not make any move to escape. He sat down at twice arm’s length. If they both reached out, they could just brush fingers. The memory of her hand in his still clawed at him, even all these weeks later.

“How are you?” he asked, after a few moments of awkward silence.

“How d’you think?” she snapped.

He didn’t want to let her get to him; he didn’t want to argue. But he could feel his hackles rising. “Aiar came to see me, a couple weeks ago,” he said, trying to sound conversational. “He said I might be able to learn fae magic, if you can believe it.”

“I don’t.”

He boiled over. That was fast. “What on earth did I do to you?”

“You—” She bit her lip and looked away. She was trembling. With rage? Fear?

“Tell me,” he insisted.

“You could have died,” Kari said at last.

Erik blinked, bemused. “What? When?”

“When you let the fae use you for—for whatever that magic was. In the street.” She looked at him again now. Tears brimmed in her eyes, but her voice remained just as harsh. “You fell, and I thought you were dead.”

“Let him!” he squawked. “He dragged me into it! I didn’t have a choice.”

“You… you weren’t supposed to leave.”

“I didn’t,” Erik said. “I’m right here.” Tentatively, he reached out a hand. He hoped beyond hope that she would—

“YOU!” came a shout, and Erik turned toward it, startled. A shape lurched upward, a stone’s throw away. Erik took a moment to realize that it was bursting from the ground, sending clods of dirt and grass flying into the air. He leapt to his feet, and before he’d even thought about it, put himself between Kari and… whatever it was.

After a moment he placed the voice. The dirt fell away, and a seven-foot fae stood before him: Aiar.

“What in the hells?” Erik said, stepping forward. “Where did you come from?”

“I have spent the last day burrowing through the earth like a kjeldausk!” Aiar shouted. Sannfred Fray sat up groggily, staring around at the noise. “All to escape the Shadow, whose arrival was your fault!”

“What? I had nothing to do with it! You refused to teach me—”

“When I was under the earth, I felt the nexus of it right where your home stands, as I was passing beneath it. You must have done something! Did you attempt to tap into your methar without training, you foolish dolt?”

“I haven’t done anything! I don’t know how to use the methar. I don’t know the first thing about it!”

“What in blazes are you yelling about? Why’s a fae here?” Sannfred had gotten up and stepped between them, holding out his hands as if they’d been about to leap at each other’s throats.

Aiar stood clenching and unclenching his fists, blinking rapidly. The sky was faintest purple now, and soon only the stars and half a moon would remain. “The Shadow came, and I could not go aboveground. The rest of the fae are trapped in our warrens, using all their might to hold back the Shadow from entering. Only one could be spared to go seek help.” He paused, emitted a great sigh, and fell to one knee, as if fatigued. Erik rushed forward, but Sannfred blocked him.

Aiar met his eyes again. “I have used all my strength… it takes much magic to… move the earth as I did. Now that I am here…” He wobbled, and then fell onto his side.

Erik, alarmed, broke from Sannfred’s grasp and went to Aiar’s side. The fae was still breathing, his eyes fluttering faintly. “Aiar! Wake up!” he shouted. “Is he going to die?” he asked the others; everyone had come awake and gathered around, even bitter old Thora.

“I can’t say I know much ’bout a fae’s limits,” Sannfred said.

“He’ll be fine,” Gaelle stated flatly. “Let him rest.” Sannfred looked up at her, startled, but she offered no more.

Erik sat down next to Aiar and waited. The fae’s eyes had closed, but he breathed regularly, as if asleep. Kari came over and sat down on Aiar’s other side. Out of my reach. Again.

An hour passed as the sky darkened completely. Sannfred and the other men built up the fire again; by its light, Erik watched the ancient fae—eight hundred and seventy years!—breathing calmly. Erik’s eyes had begun to droop, when abruptly Aiar coughed and sat up.

“Ah. Hm. That was restful.” He crossed his legs and looked down at Erik.

“Are you all right?”

“Fae recover quickly. Do not concern yourself with my health. If you did not meddle with the methar, then why did I sense a locus of magic at your house?”

“I don’t—Remy!” Erik said, almost startling himself. “He came to my house just before the Shadow arrived! He tried to attack me.”

“The ever-maligned Remy Thurain,” Aiar mused. “You,” he addressed Sannfred. “You are of the Conclave, yes?”

“I am,” Kari’s father said, crossing his arms firmly. “What of it?”

“Do you fools still believe that this Remy fellow had nothing to do with the siktar? Or do you accuse Erik Rain of lies and deceit?”

Sannfred glowered, his beard bristling like quills. “I ain’t in a position to speak for the Conclave.”

Aiar snorted. “Well observe the evidence before you. Remy Thurain is accused of using dark magics, and then he disappears for weeks, only to resurface right as Bjarheim is enveloped by the Shadow. You, sir, are an idiot.” He turned back to Erik, ignoring Sannfred’s sputtering. “Have you a plan for the morning?”

Erik stared at him. “I, uh… we’re… we’re going to find the woodsm—the Brandrinn,” he said, using the proper term. The idea of joining the Brandrinn had appealed to him all these weeks, but the knowledge that he could learn fae magic… He saw two murky paths before him, and hadn’t the faintest clue what lay along either of them.

As if reading his mind, Aiar spoke. “If you were to learn fae magic, you could not join the Brandrinn. A man may only learn one form of magic, and then all others become closed to him.”

Erik looked up sharply. “Are you offering to teach me fae magic?”

Aiar snorted. “You would be the worst student I have ever had. With your utter lack of discipline—”

“So you are a teacher.”

Aiar shrugged. “I teach those who can learn. I do not waste my time with the unteachable.”

“Yeah,” Erik said, trying to sound disappointed. “You probably couldn’t teach a human if you tried.”

Aiar reached out and slapped Erik on the side of the head. Not hard enough to hurt, but it stung. “Do you think I am unfamiliar with that gambit? As if you—you!—might wound my pride.” But he did not snort or sigh. “It would be unwise to let an untrained whelp such as you run wild, though. And it would be a fascinating experiment. I am not aware of any fae ever agreeing to teach a human. Not that there have been many candidates. Only those with fae ancestry would have the methar, and—”

“Wait, so now you’re completely fine with me havin’ fae blood?” Erik said. “You nearly lost your wits when you realized it before!”

“Because I did not know it was possible. Now I have had time to think, and study. There have been other cases before, but very few. Fae and humans do not mate, because even though there are many humans with the disgusting predilection for engaging in relations with fae, the reverse is, thankfully, extremely rare.” He grinned, and not pleasantly. “Virtually all fae find humans repulsive.”

“Wait, what?” Kari said, speaking for the first time since Aiar had arrived. “You’re part fae?

“Apparently,” Erik said, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. Kari’s disapproval wounded him in some way that all of Aiar’s insults couldn’t. “It’s not my fault!”

“The usual human denial of responsibility,” Aiar snarked.

“As if I went back in time to force my great-gran or whoever to mate with a fae? I’d slap you upside the head if I had long enough arms,” Erik shot back.

“I would be amazed to see you try. Now, tomorrow we will journey to find the nearest Brandrinn, and I will begin to teach you to use the methar.”

Erik stared. There was something missing here. “And what do you want in return?”

Aiar pressed his lips into something that might charitably be called a smile. “You are wise to ask. I will require something of you later, and you must agree to it.”

“Without knowing what it is? Not a chance.”

“Then you may test your luck finding another fae who will teach you.” Aiar sprung up to his feet and began to walk away. “I can find my own way to the Brandrinn.”

“Wait!” Erik scrambled after him. “What kind of thing’re you gonna ask of me?”

“I cannot tell you, because I do not know yet. It is merely a debt that must be paid off later.” He was still walking; Erik had to nearly run to keep up.

“Argh—fine! I’ll do it.”

This brought the fae to a stop. Aiar swung around and grabbed Erik by the chin. “Swear.”

“I—I swear on my life,” Erik said. He hoped he wasn’t going to regret this.

Dawn found them trudging through the hills; even Thora, who had not managed to convince anyone to go south with her. It seemed she was not quite so determined to go off alone. This did not keep her from incessantly muttering that they should forget about the woodsmen and head south.

Erik was excited to learn something about magic, something real. His whole life, magic had just been something mysterious that certain grown-ups did, and here he was, about to learn it!

Aiar hadn’t said anything about it all morning, and finally Erik’s curiosity got the better of him. “What’ll I learn first?” he asked Aiar. The fae strode briskly onward, stopping occasionally to sniff the air and, after Erik insisted, let the others catch up with his longer strides.

“A fae spends his first century learning the basics of magic,” Aiar said. “You humans with your puny lifespans will not have so long. Yet it would be unwise to rush things, lest you overreach and destroy yourself. Or worse, me.”

“I promise I’ll be careful,” Erik said.

“Human promises! What a valuable currency.” He snorted. “Your intended caution has nothing to do with it. Using the methar can wreak havoc even under the best of conditions.” He waved irritably at their surroundings. “This falls far short of ideal. But time is short. Normally, for a fae, the first step is learning to sense the methar, and such training usually lasts at least a decade. For you, I suppose we must compress things a bit. A year should suffice.”

“A year?” Erik squawked. “A year just to learn to sense magic?”

“Not magic. The methar.” Aiar sighed and came to a halt again. The rest of the party was a hundred yards back; Erik’s legs ached from keeping up with Aiar, but he wasn’t about to let the fae hear him complain about that. “It appears differently to different people. Some see it as a candle’s flame; others a bright star.”

“How do I see it? Where do I look?”

“You look within. Now contemplate that silently for a while. Your incessant questions grind upon my nerves.” He strode off, and Erik took the hint to leave Aiar alone for a time.

He let himself fall back to the rest of the group. They all gave him odd looks, but no one said anything for a bit—well, Thora was muttering something about foolish children—until a man’s voice spoke up. It was the husband of the young couple who’d been caught outside of Bjarheim; his name was Ludwin. “He seems a bit of a prat, eh?”

“Not the nicest fellow I ever met,” Erik agreed.

“Never met a fae ’fore,” Ludwin said. “Think he’ll really take us t’ find a woodsman?”

“I hope. What good one woodsman—one Brandrinn’ll do against the Shadow, though…” He caught Sannfred Fray’s eye. “D’you know anything ’bout what the Brandrinn can do, sir?”

“Th’ Shadow’s death,” Sannfred huffed. His cheeks were red with exertion. “Woodsmen guard th’ forest; so they’re all about life. Like fire an’ water, if they mix. That’s the theory, anyhow. Never seen a woodsman in action, meself.”

“Will we find one?” Erik asked. “They must know what to do about the Shadow.”

“They’d better,” Sannfred said. “If not… then th’ city may be lost forever.”