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.”


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