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.


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